If there’s one word that encapsulates what the L.A. County Department of Arts and Culture is about, it’s access. From organizational grants and public art commissions, to internships, education programs, career guidance, events and some intriguing interdepartmental placements, expanding the presence of the arts in the lives of as many county residents as possible is the guiding principle. In the aftermath of the pandemic and in light of the landmark Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative, its role in the recovery and revitalization of the county’s cultural landscape is more vital than ever. We checked in with its director, Kristin Sakoda, about how it’s all going.

Formerly known as the L.A. County Arts Commission, in 2019 they became the Department of Arts & Culture. (The arts advisory body to the Board of Supervisors is still called the L.A. County Arts Commission.) Sakoda, as executive director of the commission, oversaw its transition to a county franchise, and continues to serve as the department’s director. Before that, she was at the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and before that she studied Race and Ethnicity and Feminist Studies at Stanford and Law at NYU. Before all that, she was an accomplished performing artist — like, on actual Broadway stages.

After she went to law school and became the dedicated policy nerd we know today, Sakoda saw the intersection quite clearly between arts, philanthropy, government, real democracy and healthy civic engagement. And as she tells the L.A. Weekly, even before any of that, she was, crucially, raised in a home and a school environment that valued the arts and encouraged her creativity. And that’s what she wants for every child — for each and every one of us, actually.

Kristin Sakoda, Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture

“All of this comes from my own lived experience,” she says. “I know firsthand why all of this matters, and what the personal impact of the arts can be. The arts offer not only skills to collaborate and build, but the inspiration to change our paths no matter who we are, where we come from, whether we have money or anything else. Everyone deserves to have those opportunities.”

Across data-informed policy advice, funding distribution, programming development, education initiatives, community building, and exciting direct commissions with artists like Alison Saar and Patrick Martinez, Sakoda says, “All of the work is about real world impact that advances the great civic narrative — who the arts are for, and who we are as humans. Art creates space for empathy and that makes a difference.”

Extraordinary Experiences in Everyday Places, by By Olalekan Jeyifous, at DOORS Reentry Center (L.A. County Civic Art Collection)

Among the action items manifesting from this worldview — and especially in the COVID-19 recovery phase and at a moment when the social fabric can use all the repairs and reinforcements it can get — is the Department’s Countywide Cultural Policy. A kind of road map, more of a world atlas really, to bolster resources and equitable access to the arts in civic life, its release and implementation comes at a complex time of pandemic-survival needs and heightened awareness of society’s responsibilities toward under-represented, under-funded communities who desperately need healing-centered arts, and creatives who need employment.

One of the more innovative programs is the extensive interdepartmental residencies for “creative strategists” throughout civic and government agencies — Mental Health, Violence Prevention, Immigrant Affairs, Parks, Aging, and more. One particularly successful example was placing Deborah Aschheim in the Registrar and Recording Office in the run-up to the 2020 election. Her “365 Days of Voters” video and social media campaign centered on asking people why they vote, in an effort to increase participation in the democratic process. These residencies not only generate exciting breakthroughs in concept and process of policy-making facing the community, but enrich the lives of the agency employees themselves, with profound follow-on effects.

Mystical Forest, by Christine Nguyen, at Sheila Kuehl Family Wellness Center(L.A. County Civic Art Collection)

The Los Angeles County Civic Art Collection compiles the over 150 artworks located on county properties all across the region, pieces “commissioned, donated, and purchased since the Civic Art Policy was adopted, as well as historic artworks created prior to the establishment of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.” During the pandemic, the county made dozens of these works available as free downloads for use as wallpapers or, saliently in the pandemic-induced video conference lifestyle, as Zoom backgrounds (pictured).

Even in the largely virtual world of the moment, or perhaps especially now, free public works activating our shared outdoor spaces have become even more central to the city’s sense of itself. “Geographic equity is a huge factor as well,” Sakoda says. “Inclusion is a special challenge in what is both size and population-wise the biggest and most diverse county in the country. The question of how to be present and responsive to, and reflective of, each of the 88 cities and 125 unincorporated territories of L.A. County is a big one. “We convene leadership from L.A., Pasadena, Culver City, Santa Monica, Santa Clarita, Lancaster,” she says, plus something like 100 philanthropies, leadership in the education sector, 450 small to midsize cultural organizations, as well as individual artists. “I’m a big believer in watering every flower.”

For more information on all the programs and resources available through the Department, visit lacountyarts.org.

Big Wishes and Magic Birds, by Bunnie Reiss, at Carolyn Rosas Park (L.A. County Civic Art Collection)

LA Weekly