Community Voices cultural affairs

Published on May 22nd, 2014 | by Zamná Ávila

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Baseline for the Department of Cultural Affairs

By Adolfo Nodal

I am aware that Mayor Eric Garcetti is currently grappling with the Cultural Affairs Department and what kind of leader he should tap to bring energy and dynamism to the City’s cultural programs. As a seventeen year veteran of the City’s cultural programs including service as a former general manager of Department of Cultural Affairs, past President of the Cultural Affairs Commission, recent president of the L.A. Sister City Association and current festival producer in the City I have an insight from what I have learned from those jobs.

Obviously the city needs an Arts Pied Piper of category 5 proportions. But that leader has to be the mayor. In Garcetti, we have a leader that cares deeply about the health of the creative community and, by extension, the economic health of the city. As a council member and as council president he did a lot to support the arts and the film community in Hollywood. The Arts Community will not forget his leadership in unison with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to save minimal funding and maintaining that department when several bureaus and departments were merged in 2008 and 2009 and 2010 when the great recession forced severe budget cuts. Today, by definition, he is the mayor for the Arts. His leadership is primary and can’t be delegated but the Mayor and the city council both need high quality help in this area of City Government.

The Department of Cultural Affairs has to be upgraded and funding has to be restored and increased. But it’s not all about money. It’s about creating a political, economic, and spiritual environment that will be conducive to culture and its also about regaining a strong civic stake in the city’s creative development. The mayor and the council have to become visible champions of the Department of Cultural Affairs and challenge the department to do more for artists and audiences. They must add political muscle and cash and also scope to the department. Fortunately, the L.A. Endowment for the Arts that was established by Mayor Bradley and Joel Wachs with my assistance, in 1988 through 1991, is mostly still in place structurally. Some piecemeal amendments that were added, mostly over the last five years, will have to be undone but L.A. Endowment and the city’s cultural master plan are still law and ready for a good, smart, revision.

These were the five original elements of the L.A. Endowment when it was established in 1989-90 and they formed a good basis for building support for the arts in the city.

Arts Development fee which included 1 percent of the project costs for all city building and infrastructure costs as well as selected private development. There is a great opportunity to raise the amount of funding here by including housing in this ordinance. Also city leaders should bring the Proprietary Departments, DWP, Airports and the Harbor Department into the fold. The day the City Council had the final vote on this ordinance around 1991, housing was carved out of it at the behest of then Councilwoman Gloria Molina, and the three Proprietary Departments negotiated their way out of this ordinance by promising to voluntarily spend 1 percent on the arts for their new developments. But there is no accountability and The Harbor Department has become notorious for underspending their 1 percent and refusing to account for it.

Transient occupancy tax amounting to 1 percent of the City’s share of the hotel bed tax that is levied on tourists goes to the arts in L.A. This is part of the bedrock of the arts programs with the simple premise that culture is one of L.A.’s main attractions for tourists around the world. Historically this has been the base of the program as the other elements have fluctuated with the leadership and effectiveness of the Department.

General fund. This is an important element of funding as it demonstrates the true commitment of the city in providing support from the tax base that could have gone to other needs. This has to be restored as a symbol that the city has skin in the game. The City cannot ask others to do what its unwilling to do. Show good faith and restore General Fund money to the Department.

Private fundraising/revenue generation that does not conflict with the arts community but is gathered to serve the larger needs for the culture of the City and also provide direct programs. Thanks to the great efforts of the last General Manager, Olga Garay, this element of the funding skyrocketed. She literally kept the DCA alive with her great skill in outside fundraising. However, this can only be part of the mix of funding to the Department.

Non cash support including in-kind support, and human resources. This is an area of growth if handled creatively. An established example of an exciting program in this vein is the L.A. Shares reuse program. There are a myriad ideas for special partnerships between the arts and many causes and more. These are the ideas that are already there. It will be great to see what a very adept Director of Cultural Affairs will do with this and what new and exciting resources he or she will bring to the table.

 

Along with the structural elements above, there are established principles that are uniquely Los Angeles that were put in place with the L.A. Arts Endowment that have been time tested over the last thirty years. They need to be reevaluated and reasserted.

First and foremost, exhibit zero tolerance for artist censorship and the trampling of artists right and freedom of expression in Los Angeles. Demonstrate that our City is friendly to artists and creative people. Joel Wachs and I did this in the 1990s when Congressman Jesse Helms and others were demonizing artists such as Robert Maplethorpe and Andres Serrano and creating a chilling effect for artistic expression nationally. But not in L.A. We did everything in our power including the establishment of City grants for artistic excellence with the COLA grants. The result is that artists around this country came to see Los Angeles as very friendly to culture and a mass migration of artists from around the country, who decided to move to the Southland, ensued. The City has to be an active friend instead of a passive funder of the arts in LA by supporting artists rights and encouraging the cultural community to participate more fully in City Government.

Encourage an evolving paradigm of excellence by actively expanding the definition of beauty and quality to include the vision of excellence in its many forms and as seen by the great variety of people that call Los Angeles home. Excellence is the dividend that we all want in all of our arts programs but we must be cognizant that various interpretations of quality are based on various cultural traditions. Let’s call this “broad cultural literacy in order to survive in the city.” It is obvious that in L.A., if you are not literate of the variety of cultures and folk ways around you, it’s simply hard to do business. There is no way around this in many American urban areas. Tom Bradley saw L.A. as a great and beautiful mosaic. Dick Riordan saw the great mortar as the essence of what keeps us together. Jim Hahn looked for ways of strengthening. And Antonio Villaraigosa worked with the full involvement of then Council President Garcetti and other Councilmembers to keep it from falling apart in such a difficult financial period. Today. the Mayor and the Council, with the help of DCA, are in a wonderful position to polish that mosaic and make it shine again.

Support art activity in all its forms many of which we won’t know about until it hits us in the head. Art has various purposes. It is produced for its own intrinsic value and to help something outside of itself. Artists are good citizens by definition. Art will help the city. And it fuels a commercial industry that is vital to the City. Just support it. Don’t worry about defining it. History will take care of that.

Be a stalwart supporter of great design of City construction. All Angelinos have benefited from well-designed libraries, Recreation & Parks centers, fire and police stations. The LAX Theme restaurant by Paul Williams in the mid-1950s, the 1995 control tower by Kate Diamond, and the light sculpture created by Ted Tanaka and Paul Tzanetopoulos in 2000, are all wonderful examples of exemplary design. There are many others like these all over the city and many more to come. However it was difficult to make these projects happen. budgets and timelines are enemies of good design in the civic design review setting. You need to make great design a stated priority and be vigilant that it happens.

Keep an eye on funding equity. The city’s Civic funds and their impact should be made accessible to all parts of the City as equally as possible. Every part of the city, and large and small cultural institutions alike need support to maintain a healthy environment for the arts. Major institutions need as much help as neighborhood arts programs. And individual artists support must also be expanded. Often artists do not want to work within institutional settings. Programs that award artists solely for the quality of their work such as the long established COLA Grant awards should be encouraged. And we should find new, more up to date, and exciting ways to get money to artists in addition to jobs.

Fully support the community arts infrastructure
The City has art centers that have been systematically underfunded over the last 10 years. The active city participation in its festival program has ground down to almost no funding and very little political support. The City’s important COLA grants have steadily been reduced. But on the bright side,a few months ago, The Mayor and the City Council passed a historic and sweeping new murals ordinance that corrected a decade long set of unfortunate losses caused by a severe set of circumstances related to keeping commercial signage under control that ended up dismantling the very important mural movement in our City. My frustration with the mural issue is what led me to quit the Cultural Affairs Commission. My fellow Commissioners and I lived through those gloomy days when we had to allow a bad billboards to go up while seeing the Building and Safety Department cite business owners and muralists for creating beautiful gifts to the neighborhoods. We saw great murals that were already up destroyed. Muralists went out of work and a resistance movement of graffiti artists fought back. But the City did work hard to reverse this wrong. It is wonderful to see new murals popping up throughout Los Angeles today. It is time to provide a portion of the taxes and fees that the City collects for outdoor advertising to a comprehensive mural program that will conserve murals and create new ones.

Community festivals are the celebratory counterpart of neighborhood murals. Like murals, the festivals of L.A. were one of its major cultural calling cards. Like Murals, city festivals have systematically been dismantled and reduced over the last 15 years. There are at least three forms of festivals. Commercial concerts and festival settings on city property like parks, streets and city buildings; Citywide festivals that tie many communities together in the spirit of L.A. and are nothing less than broad civic celebrations like Ciclavia and the recent Getty Pacific Standard Time; and neighborhood and community festivals ranging from tiny street parties to celebrate a neighborhood hero or event to mid sized celebrations devoted to an art form, a specific community or an idea. All of them are very important to the cultural ecology of the city. The commercial concerts and festival events like Fiesta Broadway and Jay-Z’s Made in America event should pay for city services and the City should devote a part of that payment to a fund administered by DCA to provide support to the community and civic celebrations. As a festival producer myself, I cannot stress how difficult it is to provide a wonderful festival to the public. City Hall is full of roadblocks. Even an experienced festival producer has difficulty. Most just give up. Create a one stop office at DCA to provide a master permit for festivals and be a champion for them. Much like what the City does for films in L.A. This is a way that we can start backfilling the DCA festival program. Its time to tackle a festival ordinance, on the level of the mural ordinance that will bring the city’s many festivals back to all the neighborhoods that have lost them.

Support the international scope of Los Angeles by celebrating the many citizens from around the world who have chosen to live in our city through our arts infrastructure as well as provide cultural and trade exchanges for maintaining connections between Angelinos and their home countries. The City has an established Sister City program. This program has languished for years without real focus. Since Tom Bradley departed City Hall it has been in limbo and thanks to the visionary work of Councilman Tom Labonge, it survived and is reviving itself. It is time that the Mayor owned this wonderful, long established, and very promising program. Dick Riordan and Antonio Villaraigosa did nothing as Mayors to further this cause. It is time that you formally move this program to the DCA and provide financial backing to it. There are many hard working and bright minds devoted to L.A. Sister Cities but they need real support and a real structure to grow. Devote an important space at LAX for an ongoing Sister City exhibition program that will serve our 35 Sister Cities. All of them have a myriad of interesting exhibitions that don’t come here because of the dearth of places to house them. Create a civic Sister City Center for the arts and commerce in San Pedro. And endow it so that we don’t forget them.

Help the commercial culture industry in L.A. through tax incentives, services and direct support, much like the housing industry developers get. Like the support that the film industry gets. Like the focus on directly helping education, especially private Charter Schools. There is no reason why we cannot recognize and support the many commercial galleries, theaters, music halls, and other private forprofit cultural resources that we have. The Mayor can lead us out of the non profit ghetto. He can blur the line between non profit arts organizations and private for-profit arts organizations. Its an art to stay in business these days and all arts organizations are small businesses. They all need your help to stay alive.

 

Everything that I have cited above will require partnerships, cajoling, and years of legislative work to make happen, however the Mayor is in the enviable position of making some things happen as executive actions that will make a difference. Make 2015 the “Year of Action” for the arts in L.A. The President has decided to do some things through executive orders. Below are some ideas for the to consider implementing as Mayoral Directives. These are things that he can do himself.

He can use his leadership and immense power over the Department Heads to require that every city department is an advocate and active partner in accomplishing the cultural goals of our city. There is no reason the Police Chief cannot be a vocal arts supporter, or the Fire Chief, or the Director of Planning. Or the GM of Transportation, or the President of Public Works. Especially the Recreation and Parks Department that has been actively hostile to the arts community for years. That Department has singularly dumbed down the quality of the park’s cultural presentations through a negative attitude about art and the DCA itself. That attitude is pervasive in that Department from top to bottom. Rec. And Parks feels that they should get the DCA back after it was carved out of them when it became a stand alone Department in 1980. They have instituted outrageous fee increases that basically killed the City’s festival program. Their callous attitude towards independent art production in the parks is closely followed by a Building and Safety Department that gleefully went after street murals and their owners. Those two Departments have been the biggest enemies of the arts community in City Hall. This has happened through a systematic series of attitudes and actions over the last twenty years. The Mayor can stop this. We should have urbane and enlightened Department Heads who can establish a holistic approach to the cultural community for their departments and communicate this effectively to every member of their organizations. Cultural literacy and support of the city’s culture should be a performance item in each General Manager’s yearly performance review. This is not Kansas! [No offense to Kansas, of course]. This is L.A. and all our leaders in City Hall need to support the arts.

The Mayor should appoint more artists of all disciplines who bring creative problem solving skills to many standing City Commissions especially the Recreation and Parks, Police, Planning, and, of course, the Cultural Affairs Commission.

Mayor Garcetti can use his bully pulpit to speak out regularly in favor of the culture of this City. He should take the side of artists and arts organizations when they are being put down by others. The more he talks about it the more people will learn that he is serious. This Mayor got a lot of support from the arts community when he ran. He should not forget that. He should establish an arts ombudsman in his office to help implement his policies.

Below are some coalitions that Mayor Garcetti can put together that will greatly aid the delivery of culture in our city and provide new ideas and sense of excellence in the very fabric of our civic realm. Arts and Education and Arts and Community Economic Development and Cultural Tourism have already been vetted and established as good partners so I wanted to suggest two more collaborations that make sense to increase the impact of the arts in the city.

Arts and Public Safety. There are many studies that show a clear relationship between an active cultural life and public safety. The LAPD just about scratches the surface of the possibilities here. DARE is very important and and
well established. But there are new ways of reaching young people through the arts in ways that have not been tried by that Department. Remember that many creative kids don’t aspire to be Police Cadets. But many support public safety and want to help. The Fire Department and the Office of Emergency preparedness need to get their messages out about emergency preparedness in a way that is dynamic and understandable. Much like what Garcetti did with his first Mayoral Directive for the Great Streets Program, he should assemble the GMs of Cultural Affairs, and Emergency Preparedness and the Police, and Fire Chiefs to develop ways the Arts Community can be involved directly in addressing public safety. From education and preparedness to emergency response, the artists of this city are ready to roll up their sleeves and pitch in to help Angelinos in need. We can create a way that our arts organizations can be ready to assist Angelinos in major catastrophes like earthquakes or terrorism and in preparing for them. After the first responders have done their job, the arts community can provide healing education and a return to normalcy. Public cultural programs are vital then to help our community process their fears, grief and pain. The City can create a cultural emergency preparedness and response program that will organize this vital resource.

Faith-based culture along with traditional Community arts. Faith based programs that provide many high quality cultural experiences are starting to expand outside of their specific communities. Virtually all places of worship in our city offer public music, theater, youth arts and educational programs in one form or another. Many folk-based cultural practices have sacred elements to them. We have to find a point of collaboration to expand cultural services. It is time that you put together a coalition of these stakeholders to see how they can all assist each other with the greater goal of offering higher quality cultural activities to Angelinos. Put DCA at the lead of this initiative. But also assign a group of GMs to be part of it and provide ideas and resources.

Retool the Department of Cultural Affairs and grow it. It has shrunk to a point that it is on life support at this moment. The Department should not be expected to act like it is the Rockefeller or Ford Foundation or some other fancy private arts funder. Cultural Affairs should be an on-the-sidewalk support base for artists and communities. Think gumshoe work and watery city coffee. DCA and its leader has to posses the full range of social interactions from Downtown Grand Avenue to Van Nuys Blvd in Pacoima. We must remember that DCA is the entry level arts program for the millions of Angelinos that can’t afford high prices. Add scope to the Department. Reassign functions away from other departments when they are neglecting them and give them to Cultural Affairs. There are many cultural functions scattered around City Government that can best be shepherded by DCA. For instance bring Historic Preservation back to DCA. Historic Preservation is better served by people who care for culture than people that care about planning. Give the DCA Sister Cities and fund it with Port and LAX money. Move the underperforming city-owned museums and theaters that are run by Rec and Parks to the DCA with funding to improve them. The Cultural Affairs Commission already regulates street lighting. Move the Bureau of Street Lighting to DCA with funding to oversee it. Create a Bureau of City Lighting, not just street lighting. Think gas lamp or sustainable lighting district vs. cobra head districts. Light all the historic buildings in the city through the street lighting program. Shifting the planning from engineers to artists and urban planners will make them special. They will light this city in formidable ways. Functions like these, that I have suggested, will integrate the DCA into the City fabric again and give it teeth with real functions so that its not perceived as fluff and expendable.

Strengthen and empower the Cultural Affairs Commission. Give it a role in overseeing the DCA. If you can do that you will minimize the dysfunction of these two groups and make it a cohesive and powerful organization. Give the Commission more regulatory work. That commission is very effective at its work but it does not have enough power. Expand the Commission, add expertise in architecture and design and urban design, in real estate development, in Urban Design in education and in the arts. In short, demand an activist commission that is focused and working in unison with the Department to empower the overall organization.

I stated earlier that it wasn’t all about money. However money is vital to making the City a supporter of the arts. Expand the Arts Grants program. This is the best single way to get support directly to all the arts organizations who are working to serve Angelinos. Make sure that the Proprietary Departments abide by the laws of the L.A. Arts Endowment and don’t skirt participation in their own ways. We need full compliance. The L.A. Times recently wrote about the City Controller report that shows almost eight million Dollars from the real estate development process has been sitting in an account for over seven years when they should have gone to the Department. This during an economic catastrophe that saw many important arts programs close their doors. This is the mind set in City Hall that the Mayor can change. The Mayor and Council must restore the General Fund involvement in the Department. In this way they can show that they are serious about caring for the arts with the City’s own money. Not just special funds. The should expand our civic Public Art Program (Arts Development Fee) to include 1 percent of the project budget on residential construction for properties with multiple units. Currently the ADF applies to Municipal construction project and commercial projects above a certain value and does not include housing construction. The arts belong where people live and just maybe it will make the experience of our apartment dwellers and their neighbors better. Allow the DCA to charge fees to other city entities for processing and administering work of other department’s compliance process in areas of design review, public art administration, and cultural services. Why does DCA have to do this work for other departments for free when every department charges internally for their work? Again the new Arts Director must bring in private dollars working closely with the Mayor and Council. They have to, that is one of the legs of overall civic support for the arts.

I am confident that the new Director of the Department of Cultural Affairs will invent very exciting new ideas and unique approaches that will build on this base that harks back 25 years. And today’s L.A. needs the arts as much as always. However the same needs we had in the early 1990s continue to exist today because they are basic elements of the unique cultural ecology of Los Angeles. Understanding where we came from will allow us to devise new ways to help that are more about L.A. now.

Our City and our best artists can make a difference. They will show the world that we are capable of thinking in vital ways, that we can be pioneers, that we are innovators and, most importantly, that we have a heart. A visionary cultural policy as implemented by a smart Mayor and City Council with a powerful Cultural Affairs Department is the closest that you can come in government to doing God’s work. It is about the spirit of the City.

About the Author

Adolfo V. Nodal is an LA Arts Administrator that held the position of General Manager of the Cultural Affairs Department from 1988-2001. MORE

 


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