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Villaraigosa wants to rescind arts grant cuts that stirred protests

May 1, 2010 |  8:51 am

VillaraigosaElGrito Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has backed away from his controversial plan to cut the city’s arts grants by $415,000 and give the money to four other cultural organizations he picked himself.

“We were overzealous,” Ben Ceja, deputy mayor for budget and finance, told the City Council committee that has been going through the mayor’s budget proposal with each department head, in preparation for making recommendations to the full council.

Ceja asked the budget and finance committee to restore the $415,000 to the Department of Cultural Affairs budget. While no action was taken, committee Chairman Bernard C. Parks said he was miffed that the transfer had been proposed in the first place. Restoring the money to the $2.7-million arts grants program would mean that 35 organizations already approved through the standard application process in which panels of experts review and score each proposal will not lose their grants; 271 others would avoid 7% to 15% cuts.

Ceja said in an interview that the change of heart came after Olga Garay, Villaraigosa’s appointee as executive director of the cultural affairs department, explained the longstanding process of competitive grants. It was “a key [factor] that made us reconsider this,” the deputy mayor said. “We didn’t want to harm the process.”

As Garay and several L.A. arts leaders told the council budget committee during the hearing Friday at City Hall, the peer-review process that L.A. uses for its grants follows what is nationally considered a “best practice” for government grant-making -- designed to make artistic and educational merit the only criteria, and avoid any appearance that political connections influence decisions.

Michael Alexander, head of the Grand Performances series in downtown L.A., told council members that if the city were to turn grants into earmarks, arts organizations would conclude they needed to be politically connected to get funded and would soon “be bombarding your offices” to make their pitches.

Villaraigosa wanted to spend $250,000 on Channel 36, a city-owned cable TV station; $75,000 for the El Grito annual Mexican independence celebration; and $45,000 each for the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival and the Pan African Film Festival.

Ceja, the deputy mayor, said the idea sprang from the mayor’s attempt to address a crisis-level deficit in the city’s general fund by pulling money out of other budget areas, such as the Department of Cultural Affairs, which gets most of its money from a share of hotel taxes. The uses would correspond to the department’s mission, and seemed appropriate until it became clear that the move would put the city at odds with standard grant-making procedures.

Ceja said the four organizations the mayor wanted to support all customarily have gotten annual city funding from other areas of the city budget, but his bid to reduce general fund spending had put them in jeopardy and he wanted to find a way to continue supporting them. The deputy mayor asked the council committee to try to find $415,000 elsewhere in the budget for the four; Parks said dryly that after the mayor’s budgetary flip-flop, “to throw this on us…I don’t think it is fair.”

Also unfunded in the mayor’s proposal was $150,000 needed for conserving the Watts Towers -- funding that could be vital to cementing a partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Getty Conservation Institute and California African American Museum that could bring unprecedented expertise in art preservation, education and marketing, plus donor connections, to bear on the chronically underfunded folk-art masterwork. But Garay said that by spending less on printing and using savings projected from the planned transfer of seven neighborhood arts venues to private operators, she has come up with the $150,000 for the towers and will move to cement a written agreement with the three museums establishing a Watts Towers “consortium.” She said a meeting would be held soon in Watts to get input from the community.

OlgaGaraySkalij Still uncertain, Garay said, is whether a new proposed city policy ending rent-free leases for nonprofit groups could undermine the plan to privatize those seven venues. It calls for nonprofits to pay at least 50% of market rental rates and cover maintenance and utility costs. Parks, whose committee recently approved the plan, said it wouldn’t go into effect for at least a year and that each lease-holder’s individual situation would be reviewed before any rent changes went into effect.

A concerned Garay said after the hearing that potential nonprofit operators for the seven neighborhood arts centers and theaters the city wants to privatize are unlikely to sign contracts and leases if they don’t know what their rent and overhead costs would be.

Garay said she wants to provide $14,000 a year in city operating support to the prospective newcomers, continuing an existing policy. Meanwhile, the cultural affairs department has set aside $365,000 to keep six of the centers open through December while the process of finding operators goes forward (the seventh, the Vision Theatre, is closed for renovations). However, full-time directors who knew each facility and neighborhood well will be laid off after June 30, and part-time managers and instructors will take their places.

-- Mike Boehm


Arts groups square off against City Hall and mayor

L.A. County, city arts budget proposals include cuts for many programs

Top photo: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, right, and Mexican consul general Ruben Beltran at City Hall in 2005, enjoying El Grito, the Mexican independence celebration that was among four earmarks Villaraigosa had proposed funding with arts grant money before withdrawing the controversial idea Friday. Credit: Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times.

Bottom photo: Olga Garay, head of L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs. Credit: Wally J. Skalij / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (12)

Thanks, Mike, for doing such a great job reporting on this story. Please continue keeping arts and culture policy in the news.

Thanks Mike for the very accurate (I was there) and immediate reporting.

Excellent coverage of an important topic with many moving parts! The proposal to move the $415,000 sounds like it was well-intentioned, but clearly it sets a bad precedent in terms of process. Also, re: the proposal to end the $1 a year lease for these public service organizations - how do you get these consortiums going if their anticipated costs are likely to shift wildly? Again the penny-wise and pound-foolishness problem. Thanks again for an excellent report.

I'm trying hard to understand why the City is considering giving billionaire Eli Broad a $1 lease while simultaneously taking the same leases away from organizations with less money who now provide arts and education services.

How embarrassing our little mayor is. He doesn't have a clue. Lay-off, cuts, No cuts, no lay-offs....The people who work for him are as clueless as he is.

Villaraigosa should have volunteered by now to pay damages to all those he has harmed. Taking personal responsibility, and all that . . .

Thanks for the fair reporting on the financial crisis that attempts to decimate the arts in LA. IT can't be done since it is so integral a part of LA.

right on WOW!
This is ridiculous.
The rich get richer and the struggling get thrown out on their butts. Welcome to the USA where the gulf between the rich and the poor widens every year.

Tony seems to like swaying in the breeze on the issues he gets involved with. He must feel it is better than getting tied to the floor on an issue and having to defend it against all inquires/challenges. The ol' "hard to hit a moving target" mentality.

The only worthwhile project here is the Watts/Rodia Towers. The rest are picked by "experts", those trained by the wealthy in THEIR art academies to produce harmless and juvenile works that are defanged of substance, and so no threat to the status quo. But great excuses for parties and backslapping about how "involved' and "caring" and "creative" they are.

If these museums were going to get involed they would have long ago, its been 55 years since Mr Rodia gave it up, where have you been? The greatest work of art in the western US, and ignored by the very establishment these funds pay. They will not move until forced to, they have trains from cranes and moving giant bolders to see to after all. You know, important and relevant stuff to ALL of our City.

Not just the less than 1% of the "arts" "community".
Artists are lone wolves, except in dance and theatre, which are performance and interpretive arts, not creative. And true creatives live far from such centers of mediocrity. Always have, always will, look it up.

Save the Watts Towers, tear down the Ivories.

And stop kowtowing to that robber baron Broad, his buddy already got convicted. He bailed before things got rough, no one said all scum are stupid. It was him and his ilk who created this situation.

Donald - please note that those "experts" are also the ones helping save Watts. Why don't you make allowances for diversity? You say you want diversity but if you really look at the monolithic message of your rants they are very colonialist—just in reverse. Down with the "Ivory Tower" and save Watts. Why cannot we have both? No one on the Ivory Tower side is says down with Watts. You are not welcoming of the other that you don't understand that in fact is not dismissing you in the same manner.

Artists are not lone wolves. You can believe the mythic portrayals about your famed modernists. If they were truly lone wolves you would not know about them.

Clean up Culture Monster.

These so called "experts" have been down on the true Towers all long, where have they been? Where has the artiste "community" been? How many have ever been in them? i have been going since I was a teenager with my mother, I guess she as an older lady was far "braver" than the so called self styled defenders of "art".

I just took a co worker who lives only three blocks away just two weeks ago, and got photos of them on my site. Few know of them anymore, they wre common knowledge for an SoCal visitor when I grew up. And a flyer and brochure pdf for anyone who wants to participate, got Crenshaw Christian Center, Episcopal Methodist and FAME on board so far, working on Cottonwood, where are you?

Where has this so called expert community been for 55 years? They never go south of Wilshire except to the airport, and shiver all the way there. Life is out here with the 350 million Americans who shrug their shoulders when they see childishness, and just say, It's art. That ain't no complement. Its called dismissive, and not worth the time or bother. Got more important things to do, like raise kids, pay taxes, and work to build a better life. I know work is a four letter word for some, but better get back to it now, gonna be a long night.

And no great artist EVER graduated from an art school without having to deprogram themselves, Picasso said he had to through out everything he had "learned" The same is true for today. Standardized mediocrity for career is a perennial force, and the enemy of creative art. Few others ever graduated, Klee, not many others, most the rest self taught, or got into art late, when looking for a way of life when young, one ets tuck in self expression, thats for babies. Adults seek a little more. And those who are successful, find it.

Oh yes, I had forgotten,
art colegia delenda est


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