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LACMA gets $500,000 grant to fund its new role as Watts Towers conservator

February 10, 2011 |  2:11 pm

WattsTowersDetail1
The new partnership between the city of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to conserve and promote the Watts Towers has paid its first dividend – a big one.

The museum announced Wednesday that it has received a $500,000, one-year grant from the James Irvine Foundation to carry out its work on the towers. The city couldn’t have landed the grant on its own because the San Francisco-based foundation doesn’t fund government agencies.

Facing extreme financial pressure, the city, which manages the towers under a long-term contract with the state of California, which owns them, had budgeted just $150,000 for this year’s work, down from a peak of $300,000 a few years ago. Last spring Virginia Kazor, the historical curator who had  supervised towers conservation, took an early retirement offered as part of the drive to reduce government spending.

Conservation work came to a standstill; Olga Garay, executive director of the Department of Cultural Affairs, said no one else on the staff had the expertise to oversee it.

WattsTowersChrsKnight The solution was the partnership with LACMA, whose director, Michael Govan, has loved Simon Rodia’s folk-art masterpiece, now a national historic landmark, since the 1980s, when he was a graduate student at UC San Diego and made special trips to see it.

James Canales, president of the James Irvine Foundation, said Govan himself broached the idea of a grant supporting LACMA’s work. The foundation’s most recent grant to LACMA, in 2006, was a three-year, $900,000 gift to create a multimedia tour for museum visitors. 

LACMA will funnel $25,000 of the Watts Towers grant to the cultural affairs department to use for programming at the towers-adjacent Watts Towers Arts Center and Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center. For the on-site conservation work, said Melody Kanschat, the museum’s president, LACMA will hire a project manager who will look to the neighborhood for paid, part-time helpers.

Plans also call for using some of the grant money to run summer bus tours from LACMA’s campus in Hancock Park to the towers, and to create ways for Watts residents to stay informed about the conservation work. Kanschat said museum officials already have begun showing the towers to prospective donors.

BudGoldstone “Now they can start doing things,” said N.J. (Bud) Goldstone (pictured, right), co-author of a 1997 book about the towers and something of a gadfly who, along with others in a network of citizens’ groups devoted to the towers and the arts centers, has regularly complained about a perceived dearth of resources for restoration, as well as the techniques being used.

In 1959, when city building officials were ready to tear down the towers, claiming they were a hazard that could easily topple over, Goldstone, an aerospace engineer, devised a stress test in which cables were used to put immense pressure on them. They passed with flying colors.

Goldstone, 85, said he’s had talks with some of LACMA’s conservation and folk art experts, and is impressed that the museum has “some wonderful people” on the case, “educated and trained in repairing artwork, and that’s what the Watts Towers need desperately.”

Garay, the cultural affairs department head, said her staff is drawing up a grant proposal for the National Endowment for the Arts’ “Our Town” initiative, launched last year by NEA chairman Rocco Landesman to fund projects that use the arts as a lever for neighborhood improvement, economic development and social cohesion. The hope, she said, is to secure the maximum grant of $250,000 and use it to create a tourist information center at the Watts train station on 103rd Street, a historic 1904 building that’s next to the Metro Blue Line stop.

The tourism center would share the yellow, wooden structure with the Department of Water and Power office already housed there. The Watts Towers is a short walk away, on East 107th Street; also nearby would be the long-planned Wattstar Theatre, intended to be a functioning, nonprofit cinema that doubles as an educational and job-training program preparing young people to work on the creative and business ends of the entertainment industry.

The museum and city will see how their one-year trial partnership on the towers goes, then consider negotiating a continuation.

For more of the story on how the grant could help, click here.

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Towers of power

-- Mike Boehm

Photos: Watts Towers, detail (top); Watts Towers (overview); N.J. (Bud) Goldstone. Credits: Los Angeles Times (towers detail); Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times (towers); Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times (Goldstone).

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