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Why Venice Deserves Its Own Museum? Let Its Founders Count The Ways

A man dressed in all black flying a huge kite on a beach next to a boardwalk.
Venice Beach.
Courtesy L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks
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Venice has lived many lives, ever since a tobacco magnet hailed from New Jersey named Abbot Kinney set sight on a plot of saltwater marshlands 14 miles west of Los Angeles, and saw in its stead a vision of a seaside resort town carved in the image of a world-famous Italian city.

In 1905, Venice of America — as it was first christened — was born, replete with imported gandolas and miles of newly constructed canals.

Since then, the beach neighborhood went through an endless series of transformations to become an indelible part of Los Angeles. It was a short-lived oil town in the 1930s. A magnet for poets, artists and writers of the Beat Generation enticed by cheap rent and the temperate weather in the 1950s. It was in Venice Beach at 1965 where a chance encounter between Jim Morrison and his film school acquaintance Ray Manzarek gave birth to The Doors. All the while, another part of the sand was solidifying its place in history — as the home of bodybuilding.

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Today, it is a destination for tourists to hit the funky boardwalk, for Angelenos to shop along the trendy Abbot Kinney Blvd, and a vital part of Silicon Beach. Of the many miles of canals built in the early 1900s, only a handful of them remain, now fronting multimillion-dollar homes.

A map of a subdivision that says "Map of Venice of America"
A historical map of Venice of America, produced by the Abbott Kinney Company in 1905
Courtesy Library of Congress

Venice's very own museum

So, with such a vast and colorful history, where does a museum begin to capture the multitudes that is Venice?

"You can't contain it all," said Anthony Carfello, museum manager of the new Venice Heritage Museum, whose grand opening is this evening. "Every neighborhood has its stories, but Venice just has a lot of that."

An inaugural exhibition titled "This is some place" showcasing the many identities of Venice's past accompanies the space's debut. The phrase came from a message written in a postcard sent from Venice in 1913. It struck Carfello as the perfect summation of this definition-defying neighborhood.

A photo of a man with short hair and a mustache and a beard looking into the camera.
Photocopy of antique postcard featuring Abbott Kinney, circa 1905
Courtesy Library of Congress

"We are not limited to art, but art is part of Venice's heritage. We are not limited to music, but music is part of Venice's heritage. We're not limited to historical discussions of land use, yet that is also part of Venice's heritage," said Carfello.

"Our opening exhibition looks at these kinds of moments and collects them as a way of looking at Venice, and to think about Venice as this place [that is] made up of many places," he continued.

Included in those stories are many that are lesser known, said historian Alison Rose Jefferson, who is also a boardmember of Venice Heritage Foundation.

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"There's so much rich culture that Venice has to offer from the standpoint of not only the history, but the evolving life of the community," said Jefferson.

That includes people like Arthur L. Reese, who worked with Kinney after Venice was founded.

"He was one of the inspirations for many African Americans moving to Venice, he brought his brothers and sisters and his cousins, which would have been in the neighborhood of 50 people by the early 1920s," said Jefferson.

Black and white photo of a canal with a person in a gondola
Early Venice, near the Lion and Grand Canals.
Courtesy Venice Heritage Museum Elayne Alexander Collection / Kinney Family

Or the story of an African American nonprofit called Project Action, which Jefferson said constructed a number of affordable housing in the late 1960s.

"Nobody really knows that. And we're going to showcase that in the opening exhibition," she said.

A passion project to document Venice's history

The project to document the histories of Venice in the form of a museum was launched in 2008 by the Venice Heritage Foundation, which comprises of historians, scholars and enthusiasts. A capital campaign started a few years ago raised some $300,000 for the permanent space on 228 Main Street.

Over the last decade and a half, the Foundation has built an impressive archive of personal items, mementos donated by those who've lived, played and worked in the 3-square mile area.

A black woman and a black man in a hat sitting in amusement park display of a speed boat in front of a drawn backdrop of an ocean.
Original Venice Pier novelty image, circa 1920s.
Courtesy Venice Heritage Museum Community Archives via Dug Miller / Lisa Asterino

"You're going to be seeing family photos. You're going to be seeing hand-drawn posters that people put up," said Justin Yoshimaru, president of the Venice Heritage Foundation. "So really what you're looking at is a very personal and intimate collection [that has been] sourced from the community."

With change being the only constant, it's imperative that these stories be preserved for everyone.

"This museum is built for Venetians by Venetians, for them to tell their stories of living in Venice," said Yoshimaru, who was born and raised in Venice. "If you're new here, I want you to feel welcome, but I also want you to understand the history that you're coming into, so that you can be a good steward of this neighborhood and community."

Grand opening details

Venice Heritage Museum grand opening
Where: Main Street Design Center, 228 Main Street, Venice
When: Saturday, March 9, from 6:30 - 9:30 p.m.
Free to the public, but tickets are recommended.

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Corrected March 9, 2024 at 9:01 AM PST
A previous version misidentified Venice as a city. We regret the error.
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