Culture Wars Hit Barnsdall, San Pedro

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.

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."

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