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Taxpayer waste? Fox 11 news probes 'boondoggle' in city arts grant

June 24, 2011 |  5:06 pm

PoorDogGroupGenaroMolina This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

On the surface of it, L.A.’s Poor Dog Group would seem to be lucky dogs, indeed — how many grassroots theater troupes get coverage on a network affiliate’s evening newscast?

But Monday’s story by the Fox 11 News was nothing to bark about.

To the station and its main source for the two-minute story, local government watchdog and blogger Walter Moore, Poor Dog Group was not a creative entity that has received extensive backing from such heavy hitters as CalArts, the J. Paul Getty Trust’s Villa Theater Lab, and now the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs.  It was a boondoggle and a drain on the public coffers.

As the story noted, the city has granted Poor Dog $12,000 so two of its leaders can spend three weeks in the Netherlands — which Moore characterized on-air as “a vacation.”

In fact, manager Itamar Stern and artistic director Jesse Bonnell will attend an upcoming international theater festival in Holland so they can network and lay the groundwork for the company to mount tours in Europe while helping their colleagues in the Dutch performance collective, Wunderbaum, forge connections that can lead to touring opportunities in the U.S.

What Moore didn’t mention and KTTV didn’t report is that more than half of the money — $6,500 — is being paid not by American taxpayes but by the Dutch government’s Centre for International Cultural Activities and the Dutch consulate in New York.  As for the $5,500 coming out of city coffers, the only Angelenos whose pockets are being tapped are ones who stay overnight in local hotels.

As a result of cost-cutting because of L.A.’s fiscal woes, the only tax money the cultural affairs department gets anymore is the 7% of tourist occupancy taxes earmarked for it under a longstanding city law whose rationale is that since L.A.’s cultural attractions are a reason visitors come here, L.A. culture should share in the receipts.

Olga Garay, director of cultural affairs, got a lot less camera time than Moore during the two-minute broadcast, so she wasn’t able to pass on the following information that she shared with Culture Monster: Over the past three years, her department has spent $450,000 of those hotel tax receipts on its Cultural Exchange International Fellowship Program (Poor Dog Group won its grant after a competive review process juried by a panel of experts).

Overall, however, the program has awarded more than $1.25 million in grants. That, Garay said, is because the department has been able to leverage its local share to win more than $800,000 in matching grants from outside funders — such as the Dutch government, a regular participant. 

That’s a nearly 200% return on investment for what Moore characterizes on his website as one of “City Hall’s boondoggles,” in which “you and I foot the bill to send performance artists to the Netherlands and other delightful venues, and we don't even get a crummy T-shirt.”

Like any true promoter, Poor Dog's Stern knows there’s no such thing as bad publicity — and he says he’d love to debate arts-funding-as-boondoggle with Bill O’Reilly on Fox’s flagship cable news channel.

Meanwhile, Poor Dog is conducting discussions on the subject after each performance of its current show, “Brewsie and Willie,” which runs through Sunday.

[For the record, 11:17 a.m. June 26: A previous version of this post incorrectly said the call letters of Fox 11 are KTLA. They are KTTV.]

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Los Angeles spares city arts funding

— Mike Boehm

Photo: Poor Dog Group performing in 2008. Credit: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times.


 
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