West of Rome Public Art founder Emi Fontana doesn't just organize art shows. She selects the space, recruits the audience, and visualizes the entire experience, too, effectively redefining today's increasingly ubiquitous and ambiguous role of "curator."
Originally from Italy, Fontana opened a gallery in Milan in 1992, but eventually found herself in Los Angeles during a romantic relationship with artist Mike Kelley. Though the two are no longer together, they've remained friends and colleagues, and Fontana has since fostered an even more intense love affair with the City of Angeles — and with public art.
While spending time in LA , Fontana recognized the opportunity to work outside the constraints of the traditional, gallery-based art market, so she decided to relocate to Southern California in hopes of further developing her own form of creative exchange. In 2005, she launched West of Rome Public Art, a non-profit organization that aims to facilitate communal interventions while enkindling a dialogue within the community. In 2008, Fontana closed her Milan gallery in order to work full time as creative director of West of Rome, named after the eponymous book by LA writer and Italian immigrant John Fante. The title of Fante's 1986 posthumous novel reflects the simultaneously elusive yet all-encompassing nature of Los Angeles, a town that is as famous as it is mysterious to outsiders. Likewise, Fontana's West of Rome isn't easy to describe, partly because its mission should be so obvious. Rather than attracting only highbrow collectors, gallerists, and other classist fixtures of the art world, West of Rome wants to engage all citizens by taking exhibits out of the galleries and into the public sphere, essentially by-passing the art dealer in the process.
Using unconventional raw material and unique backdrops such as billboards, private homes, a cemetery, and the streets of downtown Los Angeles, West of Rome Public Art makes art accessible simply by bringing it back to the people. In 2008, WoR presented Women in the City, a "viral public art exhibition" highlighting the work of four iconic female artists. Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, and Cindy Sherman all created custom messages as a collective call to action, utilizing outdoor signage across Los Angeles. In 2009, WoR then commissioned Michael Smith and Mike Kelley for an installation inspired by Burning Man: A Voyage of Growth and Discovery. In 2010, it presented another site-specific multimedia art project, this time at the Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum in Altadena, CA. Marnie Weber's Eternity Forever, featuring an elaborate performance piece with Weber's ghostly band the Sprit Girls, ongoing screenings of the artist's gothic black-and-white horror film, and an exhibit of Weber's collage work.
Most recently, West of Rome staged the "Trespass Parade" in downtown LA's landmark Broadway Theater District, held in conjunction with the Getty-sponsored, citywide Pacific Standard Time (PST) celebration of the art of Los Angeles opening weekend festivities last October. Over the course of more than 25 city blocks, the "Trespass Parade" collaboration with musician Arto Lindsay and artist Rirkrit Tiravanija invited the public to participate in a collective rally for the arts, with floats, music, dancing, and a turquoise glitter golf cart steered by Kenny Scharf, with performance artist Ann Magnuson trailing behind under an upright salon-type hairdryer. For the event, WoR also commissioned artists John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, Nancy Rubins, and Jeffrey Vallance, among many others, to create more than 60 different shirts with personal statements about social and political issues. Artists, performers, and spectators alike wore the custom-made t-shirts with slogans such as "Less Oil, More Courage," "Learn to Dream," and "The Revolution is My Boyfriend," in a display of community activism that coincided with the nationwide Occupy Wall Street protests. A healthy crowd of onlookers watched as hundreds of parade-goers marched northeast up Broadway, tying up traffic and causing rolling street closures throughout downtown, minor municipal inconveniences considering the import of the messages being broadcast into the streets of L.A.
These days, West of Rome is staging Trilogy, part of PST's extended Performance and Public Art Festival, organized by the Getty Research Institute and the Los Angeles-based nonprofit LA>< ART. Curated by Emi Fontana, the series of new performances is inspired by the Los Angeles Woman's Building, a non-profit arts center co-founded by Judy Chicago as a venue for feminist art, operating between 1973 to 1991. Trilogy kicks off with an exploration of 1970s feminism by contemporary video/performance artist Andrea Fraser. Genderqueer artist/performer Vaginal Davis follows with what WoR describes as "a poetic meditation on feminist whimsy and gender queerness." Mike Kelley caps things off with an examination of the cultural legacy of the Feminist Movement in his own art.
While West of Rome Public Art relies on funding from public, private, and corporate contributors, it's still a struggle to operate a non-profit institution in an unpredictable economy, even with WoR's recent help from the Getty. Given her track record, though, founder Emi Fontana should have no trouble continuing to help Los Angeles gain a reputation as one of the most creative, culturally influential, and community-driven cities in the world.