Artists work best when inspired, but many in the Los Angeles arts community have surprised even themselves with how fast they are mobilizing to counter a city proposal to eliminate the Cultural Affairs Department. Aided by e-mail and online petitions, artists and their advocates are planning an increasingly vocal protest in defense of a city department that supports art projects and education with millions of grant dollars.
“Nobody’s influenced by quiet people,” the department’s Ernest Dillihay told energetic members of a North Hollywood arts support group Monday.
Proposals to eliminate a handful of city agencies have been discussed publicly for more than a year, and doing away with small departments like Children, Youth and Their Families, the Department of Aging, and the Department on Disability is expected as part of Mayor James Hahn’s budget, to be released by April 20.
But rumors began circulating early this year that Hahn’s budget team also was planning to axe the Cultural Affairs Department and the Environmental Affairs Department. Those rumors were virtually confirmed at a closed March 3 budget meeting for department heads, who were informed that the cuts are definitely on the table. The city faces a shortfall of $300 million in the coming fiscal year and is looking to a number of departments, including CAD, as it is known, and its $11 million budget for a part of the solution.
Formed by the city in 1980, the department awards about $3.5 million in grants each year to 250 arts groups and individuals. It supports and publicizes more than 300 community arts festivals and operates 22 neighborhood arts-and-culture centers. It also runs the city’s historic architecture-preservation program and sponsors nearly 200 public art projects.
CAD officials quietly, but quickly, alerted L.A. arts leaders to their plight. More than 75 artists and activists responded at a March 9 “emergency” meeting at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theater, where they were briefed by CAD executives on the proposed cuts and immediately formed committees to handle public relations, demonstrations and outreach to other arts groups.
Outrage over the proposed action almost immediately found expression in a new, but growing, listserve and online petition. Dorothy Stone said she put together the SaveCAD Petition to Mayor Hahn to give residents an opportunity to let City Hall know what they think about possibly losing the department and the arts education and programming that goes with it.
“This is very important to us as an arts community,” said Stone, who works with the musical-performance ensemble California EAR Unit, a recipient of CAD funding since 1987. “This is big. This is the second largest city in the country, and we already have pretty low levels of funding for the arts.”
The listserve, at https://groups.yahoo.com/ group/saveCAD/, quickly attracted over 100 members. Stone borrowed from an article on the proposed CAD action in www.nohoartsdistrict.com, an online publication on the burgeoning North Hollywood theater-and-arts scene. She said several thousand people already have signed on at www.petitiononline.com/SaveCAD/ petition.html.
The level of passion expressed by petitioners is impressive. Many leave signed comments asserting that eliminating arts funding would be penny-wise and pound-foolish. “It is known that kids who are given access to the arts are less likely to turn to crime,” one person wrote. “By spending more on preventing crime, in a civilized manner, we would spend less on prosecuting criminals and maintaining them in prisons.” Others follow a more popular bent, like this one: “Are you kidding, do we need anymore help with the stereotype of LA as cultural void?”
Some are personal, like the one from a signer who said she teaches theater to the mayor’s son, Jackson, at his elementary school. Jackson Hahn, an aspiring actor, recently had a part in a film shown at the Sundance Film Festival, according to an article in the Torrance Daily Breeze. Another person cut more directly to the point: “Sacrifice the arts, sacrifice your job . . . you will never be re-elected.”
One former city employee urged Hahn to “eliminate duplicative services such as Children, Youth and Families FIRST!!” Another, former CAD leader Adolfo V. Nodal, wrote that “it is a shame that the City Hall administrators have made this department a scapegoat because of their own lack of vision. It has been said that this cut was ‘selected’ by the community councils. That is a smoke screen and do not believe it.”
Representatives of at least one neighborhood council, the Arroyo Seco group, were planning a resolution to support CAD, and others were discussing action as well. But the more than 90 councils have, in fact, already weighed in on their budget priorities. Hahn gave the nascent councils an unprecedented opportunity last fall to outline for him where they want to see their city’s money spent. In a series of workshops at which the mayor and his staff laid out the depth of the budget crisis, council leaders overwhelmingly called on the mayor to put public safety first, followed by basic services such as street maintenance and tree trimming. Cultural Affairs was far down on the list.
Hahn’s outreach to the neighborhood councils does more than give residents an opportunity to set budget priorities. It also, in theory, gives Hahn political cover for difficult choices. Faced with criticism for his cuts, the mayor can tell voters he is just doing what they told him to do.
The reaction of artists and their supporters to the proposed CAD elimination could put that theory to the test. The neighborhood councils are deliberative bodies, still struggling with questions of procedure. Most meet monthly, and some insist on long notice periods before an item may be discussed. Representatives often refuse to vote without adequate time to canvass their constituents. The mayor listens to them. But they are slow.
Vocal interest groups, even those not backed by big campaign money, lobbyists or a high degree of organization, may still have more immediate clout than the neighborhood councils when they can mobilize quickly and visibly. That puts Hahn back at square one, being held accountable for budget decisions even after carefully following the choices expressed by the level of government closest to the voters.
The power of the arts community — if, in fact, it materializes — also could result in interesting consequences for the Environmental Affairs Department, and any other agency on the block. Environmental Affairs coordinates tree planting, pollution reduction and other programs, often for other city departments. It has supporters, but, so far, they have not been as vocal, or as quick, as the artists.
One of the more curious aspects of the quick mobilization of the arts community has been the role played by CAD. Department chiefs have no civil service protection, and generally are reluctant to cross the mayor, who can fire them at will. In fact, General Manager Margie J. Reese has been publicly silent on her boss’s budget proposal. But Assistant General Manager Leslie Thomas has been vocal, as have others in the department whose positions are protected by the city’s civil service system.
One of them is Ernest Dillihay, who represents the African Grove Institute for the Arts and serves as minister of culture for Universal Family, but also is cultural-facilities director for CAD.
At a Monday meeting with the NoHo Theater Arts and Business Collaborative at the Road Theater, Dillihay said he was speaking as an individual and not for the department.
“I was going to be diplomatic,” Dillihay told the two dozen or so people gathered for the meeting. But he added, “Here’s an opportunity in a political year to find out which way your friends are voting.”
One artist at the North Hollywood meeting, Mark Vallen, has gathered comments and links to the effort to save CAD on his site, www.art-for-a-change.com. Not one to be coy, Vallen calls Hahn’s budget team “an obscure cabal of vulgarian accountants and hack bureaucrats” and “gray-suited Philistines.” Vallen said artists have a special knack for making a statement creatively, and that they should use it.
On that note, look for performance artist Kristine Wong at a City Council meeting soon with a college-professor friend, dressed as an alien. The point is to let the council know that everyone comes here because of the creative opportunities the city offers, she said.
“This is where I thought arts and culture is thriving the most,” Wong said. “I came here from San Francisco because of that. But all the city of Los Angeles has given me so far is two low-flush toilets. Is that all I have to show for living in L.A.?”