Los Angeles Poverty Department

Founded 1985 by John Malpede
Los Angeles, CA

Photo by Avishay Artsy.


Performance workshops initiated by John Malpede and hosted by Inner City Law Center in 1985 for anyone living inside or outside in Skid Row quickly turned into Los Angeles Poverty Department. Workshop members proposed and voted on names for the group with one member offering “LAPD," resulting in laughter until someone extrapolated “Los Angeles Poverty Department;" thereby ironically referencing the often de facto governmental body engaged in “homeless services," the Los Angeles Police Department, while no less ironically establishing the governmental department the city forgot to set up, the poverty department.

LAPD's original goal was to make performances that created community within Skid Row while getting the “real deal" of street level reality out to “normalville." LAPD continues to strive towards this mission by making work that connects the experience of communities living in poverty to the social forces that too often determine their experience. LAPD makes performances, parades, and festivals; curates exhibitions, talks, and films; and hosts community meetings at their Skid Row History Museum & Archive. Their aim is to create work that confuses the categories.

LAPD's performance projects include Public Safety for Real (2017-18), which built on community practices of empathy and concern that generate neighborhood safety; Red Beard, Red Beard, (2000-15) was an inquiry into reversing the cycle of violence; Chasing Monsters from Under the Bed (2014-15), which explored the dynamics of recovery from mental illness as well as violent police intervention as an all too frequent response to mental illness; and Agents & Assets (2001-14), a residency project created with LAPD members as well as people from impacted communities across the United States, and in Spanish language residencies in Bolivia and at the Queens Museum, Queens that scrutinized the War on Drugs and the community disruption and mass incarceration resulting from it; and Biggest Recovery Community Anywhere (2013), which excavated the history of Skid Row as a recovery community, and in doing so changed perception and language about Skid Row, both within the community and at City Hall.

LAPD's What Fuels Development? (2016) at the Armory Center for the Arts, Los Angeles, and The Back 9 (2017) at The Skid Row History Museum & Archive, Los Angeles, were performed in spaces that functioned equally as installations. Similarly, State of Incarceration, addressing mass incarceration and recovery from it, was performed in a room filled with 60 metal bunk beds that also functioned as an installation at The Box, Los Angeles (2011), and the Queens Museum, Queens (2014).

Since 2010, LAPD's annual Festival for All Skid Row Artists has presented and archived the work of over 700 artists who call Skid Row home. Their biennial parade Walk the Talk, first held in 2012, uses a community nominating process to acknowledge transformative initiatives devised by people living and working in Skid Row.

LAPD has been supported by the Annenberg Foundation, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, James Irvine Foundation, Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, Nathan Cummings Foundation, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and Surdna Foundation. They have received a Creative Capital Award; six MAP Fund Grants; a National Performance Network, Creation Fund Award; and a New England Foundation for the Arts' National Theater Project Creation and Touring Grant. LAPD receives consistent support from city, county, state, and federal government arts funders.

Artist Statement

Unlike a barber, an artist can hang out a shingle, self-announce, and practice without a license.

I was talking to a 20-year old man who was sitting on the pavement at 6th and San Julian Streets and eventually I said, “So what have you been up to today?" His answer, “I've been re-enacting the lie." Since he said that I've been turning it over and over in my mind—understanding it one way and then another and then watching understanding slip away.

Re-enacting the lie. We're all re-enacting the lie, which answers the question, “How is self-deception possible?" All the lies of the Trump era. All the lies that we don't recognize—that we reached an accommodation with, pre-Trump. The lie that it's acceptable for thousands upon thousands of people to live on the street.

In LAPD we make performances using a combination of found text (e.g., the words of public figures), individual experience, group experience, research assignments and things we make up out of our heads.

We put all this together in hope of laying bare and enervating the lie. We use art to confuse the categories, engage the city, for example, in ways they are not used to, that cause them to act differently.

January 2018