A Conversation with LAUNCH LA’s James Panozzo
by Genie Davis
Few people support the arts in Los Angeles as much as James Panozzo, the man behind the TARFEST arts festival and Launch Gallery.
It all began after his 2003 return to Los Angeles from a period in which he lived in New York and worked as an actor. “I was doing some work with the Miracle Mile Chamber of Commerce on Wilshire Boulevard, and I realized there was this park across the street that was underutilized. I’d come back from New York with a short film that I was in and a lot of connections with people in the arts. I wanted to start a platform for emerging artists in the cultural core of LA. That idea came together as TARFEST, using the Tar Pits Park location.”
Panozzo proposed the idea to the Chamber of Commerce, it’s never gone away.
“I developed a real liking for and interest in the fine arts. When gallery space on Wilshire became available the next year, myself and my good friend Steve Kramer opened the Lawrence Asher Gallery, our commercial venture. We did TARFEST each year for the community and the emerging artists. Every year the festival was different, depending on the people who were helping and collaborating. We had good years and leaner years,” he relates.
In the early years, the festival ran two to three days at a time, and rental on Tar Pits Park was very inexpensive. Several years, the festival included additional venues such as Molly Malone’s and the El Rey theater. After the great recession in 2008, things changed for Panozzo on all fronts.
“The Lawrence Asher Gallery was unable to stay open, and TARFEST downsized a bit. I came up with the concept of Launch LA to include TARFEST as one of the programs of a new non-profit. The overall mission of Launch was to provide artist opportunities and happenings throughout Los Angeles, and experiential events. While we were still in the economic downturn, there were plenty of spaces available along Wilshire, and we were able to put up pop-up galleries for the first couple years. As the economy picked up, and Launch LA got its sea legs, and became eligible for Department of Public Affairs and Los Angeles County Grants, we were able to make the commitment to move into the 170 La Brea Ave. space, where we are located today.”
Panozzo moved to that location in 2012.
Along with TARFEST and the Launch Gallery, Panozzo has also produced an MFA exhibition, Boom, highlighting MFA graduates. Boom has been held in a number of locations, including DTLA’s LA Mart, and the Pacific Design Center, as well as in the Miracle Mile district.
For Panozzo, all of this work has been pure pleasure, if not without challenges along the way.
“What I enjoy most is giving artists opportunities. There are so many talented and worthy artists, and as with any arts profession, whether its acting, music, or film, everyone is looking for a way in. There’s an abundance of talent, and it’s so much fun to work with artists who care and are willing to collaborate.”
He adds that “I feel fortunate there’s a plethora of talent. I try to keep up my end of the deal to attract people of influence into the gallery. The hard part is keeping the doors open. Anyone in the arts world knows what a challenge it is just to be in the right neighborhood and space that collectors want to visit, and artists want to be in. Overcoming that challenge is part of the fun, and part of what gets us up in the morning.”
Although Los Angeles has changed a lot since he began his support of the arts scene here, he feels that despite rising costs and considerable bottom lines, people have “really stepped up, from mom and pop diners to The Grove. I feel very fortunate to have the Department of Cultural Affairs and the LA Arts Commission to be able to support us. Being a non-profit really does allow us to think more like an institution, about the greater good, and the influence that art has on the community, and it allows us to address those issues.”
This year’s TARFEST is different than in past years, Panozzo reports. “It’s moving into an evening program. Last year it was so hot during the day, and we feel that rising temperatures may be a part of our future. We thought moving it to the evening would make a more enjoyable experience.”
The time change has also allowed TARFEST to bring in light and projected art. “We’ll have art activities from 4 to 6:30 p.m., dance performances, LACMA and the Petersen Museum coming out with art activities. The Japan Foundation of Los Angeles will also be there offering free kids art-making activities. Then when the sun goes down, it will be a really nice, intimate evening affair with light artistry installations, projections, and great bands curated by Buzz Bands LA and Kevin Bronson.” The event will also include a variety of gourmet food trucks, an art exhibition and silent auction hosted by KP Projects, a wine and beer garden.
For the future, Panozzo hopes that Launch LA will be able to reach into other neighborhoods beyond the Miracle Mile district. “The more we can collaborate and go into other neighborhoods as well, that are welcoming to artists and creative thinkers, the better it will be. Eagle Rock and Highland Park are blossoming. We were proud to provide the Frogtown Art Walk with production support,” he notes. “Los Angeles is such a big expansive city. There are jewels around every corner, and we’re thrilled to be a part of the city. We will do everything we can to reach people who are hungry for arts programming, to provide audiences with the opportunity to experience great art.”
Panozzo introduces the group show Without Design or Sketch: The Story of The Room Exhibition Organized by Rough Play, at Launch Gallery on September 10th. The project will be a large-scale installation work. TARFEST will take place on Saturday, September 24th from 4 to 10 p.m. at La Brea Tar Pits Park, 5801 Wilshire Blvd.