How an Art Library Is Changing Lives in L.A.

How an Art Library Is Changing Lives in L.A.

In 2004, Dan McCleary’s mother passed away. “My parents were avid book readers and collectors of art books,” the artist told me. “So instead of buying flowers, I told everyone to buy me books.”

That was the early genesis for a library of art books that grew to become the core of Art Division, an L.A. nonprofit space that provides free art education to underserved young adults in the city’s MacArthur Park neighborhood. As word spread that McCleary was collecting books, more donations came in from friends and fellow artists. “Chris Burden heard about it, got in touch with me and said his mother had just passed away, and did I want her books?” McCleary recalls. “He had amazing art books from his mother’s library. That was one of the big donations right at the beginning.” Today, Art Division boasts an impressive collection of over 8,000 books. And it’s still growing.

In the early days, McCleary was working as Director of Art Programs at Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA), another nonprofit that primarily focused on enrichment programs for kids from younger age groups. Eventually, he founded Art Division in 2010 with help from Javier Carrillo, Maria Galicia, and Emmanuel Galvez. They took the more adult-oriented books from the collection they’d amassed at HOLA—with permission—and set up shop in a building in the primarily Latino neighborhood of MacArthur Park. McCleary geared the space towards young adults between 18 and 26 who were “not ready to go off and be full-blown adults” as he puts it, but who had graduated high school and found what miniscule access to arts training they had cut off.

The 10,000 book library is the “heart and soul” of Art Division. From there, the nonprofit offers a range of courses and access to arts materials, providing something of a “high-end Master’s program for inner-city young adults,” said McCleary. “We give them an in-depth training in the arts.” Art Division offers entirely free classes (semesters are roughly 12 weeks) in art history, painting, drawing, printmaking, creative writing, film, and more. Access to materials, like the classes themselves, is completely gratis. Students are also taken to L.A.’s numerous museums (MOCA is a 10-minute drive) to actually see the art they studied first hand—a kind of in-person education not available even to some full-time art history undergraduates at rural schools. But beyond access, Art Division is different than your normal art history course. The latter is “slide after slide and half the class falls asleep,” McCleary said. “The point is that we don’t do that. We take a good look at the actual books and go see the art.”

And, of course, anyone can visit Art Division and crack open one of the thousands of books on the shelves to guide their studies or develop their interests as they see fit. That openness and freedom is important to McCleary. Beyond the classes, Art Division serves as a space where residents can come to relax, foster ideas, and hone their art historical knowledge. “We’re open six days a week, from 11 a.m until 8 or 9 o’clock at night,” said McCleary. “People can come and eat, work in the library and do their homework, and also have access to a really great staff and faculty of artists.” The books range from monographs of individual artists to scholarly works on architecture, fashion, art therapy—the list goes on. Teachers integrate the books into their classes and if a student is researching a particular subject or artist, McCleary will make an effort to obtain the needed materials.

A respected artist in his own right, McCleary, who has lived in MacArthur Park for 30 years, didn’t expect his life to take a turn towards operating a nonprofit space. “I was just an artist who was very hermetic, I stayed in my studio making art,” he said. But after trips to Oaxaca, Mexico—which is home to the Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca, a similar library—McCleary grew inspired.

The library itself shows no signs of slowing. “Every week or two we get a call from someone who wants to get rid of art books, and then when you go through them there are just incredible gems, most of which we already have, but it’s becoming incredibly sophisticated.” The books are all housed in the space, though they’ve had to stop building shelves because of the threat of earthquakes. McCleary told me about one student who fell upon Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit (a favorite of another L.A. legend, David Lynch). “He would come in at 8 in the morning and read that book,” said McCleary. “He just kept reading all the philosophy books every day in the library itself, and it really activated his brain.”

Today, Art Division is making a real tangible impact on its students. An upcoming show at USC in March will feature 16 students—two have gallery representation, and one has undertaken all of the graphic design for Art Division itself. And it all grew from just a few books.

—Isaac Kaplan