By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By everyone's admission, the last time the Department of Cultural Affairs allowed its own real estate to be managed by an outside arts organization, it made a mess of it.
In 2006, after a long and intensely political battle, the city department awarded its prized downtown facility, the long-struggling Los Angeles Theatre Center on Spring Street, to the Latino Theater Company, which now holds a 20-year lease to operate the venue. The choice of the Latino Theater Company was openly supported by Villaraigosa over the equally prestigious Will & Company, a performance group devoted to bringing Shakespeare to underprivileged audiences nationwide.
Some local observers thought that Latino politicians, in the words of one newspaper editor at the time, "played the race card behind the scenes" to give an advantage to the Latino group over the nationally noted Shakespeare company. The mayor himself said, on the occasion of the award to Latino Theater Company instead of Will & Company: "Some argued, 'Oh, this is too ethnic.' I say, 'Why not?' "
Many downtown residents, business leaders and activists were outraged by what they saw as Cultural Affairs' decision to fuse politics and culture so unrepentantly. But the company itself remained devoted to political agitprop. One notable "production" in early 2008, while the theater still billed itself as a Cultural Affairs venue, was a $10-a-ticket conversation with noted labor-union chief and immigration activist Maria Elena Durazo, an event not likely to be staged by Cultural Affairs itself.
With the high-profile exhibitions in Guadalajara and Madrid following the Latino Theater Company controversy, critics have begun asking whether Garay, Chang and the Department of Cultural Affairs are biased in favor of L.A.'s Latino culture, at the expense of the city's other ethnic cultures.
"We have all kinds of artists and top galleries appearing in Madrid," Chang says in response to such criticism. "We partner with many local consulates, European ones, Asian ones. We've participated in other international events. We were at the Beaubourg [Le Centre Pompidou] four years ago."
Chang also takes a shot at previous heads of Cultural Affairs. Before Garay, the department was headed by Margie Johnson Reese, a general manager chosen by Mayor Richard Riordan who later presided over the awarding of the Los Angeles Theatre Center to the Latino Theater Company under Villaraigosa.
"The city hasn't always had strong leadership in the department," says Chang. "It's been easy in the past to say that it's not very dynamic. Now it's dynamic and now it's bringing in money from all over, and it's tragic that that kind of success has to come in a budget year like this one."
Of the purported new dynamism, Garay explains that the department under her tenure has taken in $9.7 million in outside awards, such as federal NEA money, in addition to the $8 million to $10 million it gets from the city each year. But what of the future?
"We were facing annihilation last week," Garay says. In now seeking outside groups to run the two cultural centers in San Pedro and Barnsdall Park, "we will want organizations that can provide appropriate stewardship going forward."