By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Ozomatli got about $30,000. Los Lobos got about $65,000. John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects initially got $370,000, but that was increased to $449,200 — so they could create a temporary pavilion that stood for nine days. And still the city of Los Angeles' Department of Cultural Affairs couldn't spend all of the money it was awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts to participate in the Guadalajara International Book Fair, held in Mexico in late 2009.
"I took two trips to Guadalajara before the fair. Even so, we found that we were not made fully aware of all the costs we had to [assume for] the L.A. Pavilion," Olga Garay, general manager of the Department of Cultural Affairs, tells L.A. Weekly. "So some costs went up."
All in all, the Department of Cultural Affairs, on behalf of the NEA, awarded more than $2 million to various artists and groups to participate in last year's Guadalajara book fair — one of the world's most prestigious book events — for nine lavish days that afforded a few hundred fortunate Angelenos fun in the Mexican sun during a cold and dreary autumn in L.A.
Then–NEA Chairman Dana Gioia "approached us" about the book fair, Garay explains.
"He had been to it in 2006 and was very impressed by its breadth. He suggested to me that the NEA was willing to fund our city's participation in it."
Now, L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs is using the leftover NEA money from Guadalajara to bring the work of more than 50 Los Angeles artists to this week's international art exhibition ARCOMadrid — in Spain.
Yet simultaneously, the department is facing an immediate 10 percent grant reduction at home, where City Hall is in fiscal free fall and some city officials are openly using the B-word — bankruptcy — in their debates. Amid the severe budget crunch, Cultural Affairs may have to surrender two of its top facilities — the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro and the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre in East Hollywood.
In early February, Miguel Santana, the mayor's chief administrative officer, called on the Department of Cultural Affairs to cut its budget and lay off 16 employees. But in addition, Santana is pushing the idea of awarding operating leases for these two top cultural venues, possibly to private nonprofit groups.
"It will likely happen," Garay says. "In other cities, it is not common for city departments to operate arts centers, like we do in L.A." She adds, "When I took this job, I knew about the [two venues], and agreed to operate them in good faith, but they are resource-intensive to operate."
When the news hit the arts community, the Department of Cultural Affairs' friends were mobilized by proxy.
Arts-advocacy organization Arts for L.A. pulsed its artist and organization lists and brought more than 100 noisy artists and arts administrators to City Hall on February 3, to testify about the importance of arts funding to the city's cultural and economic life.
Last year, Arts for L.A. received a $5,000 grant from Cultural Affairs, consistent with previous awards of public funds it has received from the city agency in recent years. Though not registered as a city lobbyist, Arts for L.A. is nonetheless the region's leading de facto arts-advocacy group. In fact, Executive Director Danielle Brazell acknowledges that she met with three officials from the city's Chief Administrative Office, which oversees the city's budgeting process, shortly after the CAO released this month's list of 16 prospective Cultural Affairs employees to be laid off.
The fiscal reality now sinking in at City Hall is a far cry from the heady, spendthrift days that accompanied the NEA award last fall, when Garay and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa posed for photos in balmy Guadalajara to kick off nine indulgent days of pleasure. The trip south — both praised and criticized — attracted an array of Los Angeles cultural figures and groups, from Gregory Rodriguez (Los Angeles Times op-ed columnist and founder of the lecture series Zocalo Public Square) to Wayne Shorter's latest band.
The Department of Cultural Affairs even arranged for NEA money to be used to ship lowrider cars to Guadalajara to celebrate L.A.'s street culture at the book fair.
"The NEA selected the writers via conference calls," Garay says. "We selected the performers and other artists through panels."
While the CAO's proposal to cut administrators and surrender city theaters to arts organizations disturbs Garay, her criticism remains muted; she is a general manager, subject to the mayor's hiring and firing decisions. But Cultural Affairs Commission President York Chang, a political appointee of the mayor's, expresses outrage at the proposal.
"I think [the mayor and CAO] don't recognize the value of arts and culture for the economy of Los Angeles," Chang says. "The CAO's office has a very simplistic idea about what arts and culture do and how it functions in the city. I think they have a very simple-minded idea about how arts and culture function without civic support."
In fact, he asks, "How can you ask private entities to invest in the arts when they've never been invited, except by ordinance?" Chang refers to a mandated fee collected from developers of commercial properties that is funneled into the arts, as well as the city's tax on hotel visitors, which provides Cultural Affairs with most of its funds.