Culture Monster

All the Arts, All the Time

« Previous Post | Culture Monster Home | Next Post »

L.A. mayor is bullish on the arts, but funding outlook remains a bear*

January 5, 2010 |  4:47 pm

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa remains bullish on the L.A. arts scene even though the city government’s balance sheet has gone to the bears and its funding for the arts appears to be in line for yet another cut.

The mayor gave a brief, upbeat talk to a gathering of local arts leaders Tuesday morning, kicking off the second annual Los Angeles Arts Month at the downtown REDCAT theater. Before he dashed off to LAX to be briefed on new security procedures, Villaraigosa described L.A.’s arts and culture as the “soul of the city,” a hallmark of its demographic diversity, and a leading contributor to its economic muscle.

Villar2 But the mayor acknowledged that when it comes to kicking in money to support the arts, the city of Los Angeles lags behind.

According to data compiled by the arts advocacy group Americans for the Arts, L.A.'s city government spent $7.99 per capita on the arts in 2009, compared with New York's $18.52, $14.17 for Dallas, $13.94 for San Francisco,  $13.18 for Seattle, $10.92 for Miami and $9.49 for Portland, Ore. Locally, the city's role as an arts funder is dwarfed by Los Angeles County, which contributes heavily to operations of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Music Center, the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History and the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.

“In this tough budget time, L.A. has invested in the arts less ... than most big cities in the United States,” Villaraigosa began, before moving on to sunnier themes such as the 850,000 creative-sector jobs in the city and the billions of dollars the arts generate for its economy.

His parting thought was that he’s delighted to attend galas such as the Museum of Contemporary Art’s lavish 30th anniversary celebration in November because “when 850,000 jobs are associated with a red carpet, I’m going to show up on that red carpet every time I’m asked.” [*An earlier version of this item said that the MOCA gala was in October.]

But as far as doing more for the arts, Villaraigosa offered no promises of improved funding from a City Hall facing an estimated $400-million revenue shortfall.

“I hear from budget crunchers all the time, `We ought to cut Cultural Affairs.’ I look at them with a stare and say, `We already invest less than other big cities ... we ought to move in the other direction.’”

The mayor couldn’t stick around for a lovely performance that capped an hour of speeches. Perhaps no message was intended other than musical enjoyment, but the aria from Richard Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” found a young mezzo-soprano, Ronnita Nicole Miller, singing cautionary verses in German about how the gods’ very existence would be jeopardized if their leader, Wotan, didn’t pay the price in gold for securing their future.

Notwithstanding Villaraigosa's hopes of moving in "the other direction," it appears that the flow of money from the municipal treasury to the city's $9.6-million-a-year Department of Cultural Affairs will continue to ebb. Following the gathering, Olga Garay, its executive director, said in an interview that her budget request for the coming fiscal year will call for the same 10% reduction that’s looming over other city departments. That would be a steeper decline than the 8% cut she said Cultural Affairs sustained in its current budget.

“It’s going to be a very difficult budget year.... My hope is we will not suffer disproportionate cuts relative to other city agencies,” Garay said.

In his talk, the mayor credited Garay, whom he appointed in 2007, with engineering a marked increase in outside grants and donations that her department has used to augment its regular municipal funding. Garay said that the department had raised $8.8 million during her 2 1/2 years, up from $851,000 during the year before she arrived. Typically, the cultural affairs department issues about $3 million in direct grants to artists and arts organizations, Garay said, but this year, thanks largely to $2.1 million in one-time federal grants, the total came to more than $5 million.

Another of the morning’s speakers, Barry Sanders, straddles city government and the arts. The president of the Recreation and Parks Department’s board of commissioners, he is also a Los Angeles Opera board member who’s heading up the Ring Festival, in which 106 arts and cultural organizations offer programs that spin off from this year’s most prominent L.A. arts extravaganza, L.A. Opera’s spring production of  Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the four operas that make up his “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”

In an interview, Sanders talked about how the Ring Festival exemplifies a new, 21st century model for arts promotion. When he worked on the committee that engineered the landmark 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, widely seen as a coming-of-age for the L.A. arts scene, Sanders recalled, “we had $12 million ... and we made it happen. We bought things and we wrote checks. It was very 20th century.”

Staging the Ring Cycle will cost $32 million, to be covered by donations and box office earnings; that sum includes the individual staging of each opera that began last February, as well as the culmination, from May 29 to June 26, in which audiences, including a large expected tourist contingent, will be able to see three “cycles” of the entire four-part work, each within a nine-day span.

But Sanders said that the Ring Festival that branches off from the production requires no additional cash — just cooperation and coordination. Each participating organization will plan, promote and execute its own strand of the undertaking, he said, whether it’s a lecture, a concert, an art exhibition or a film. L.A. Opera serves as a catalyst, “a light curatorial hand,” and provides some promotional cohesion costing about $150,000 worth of staff time. The hope is that the loosely knit efforts of more than 100 groups will draw more people, create a bigger buzz, and provide more enjoyment and illumination than each group could muster on its own.

The idea of Los Angeles Arts Month, which is spearheaded by the Department of Cultural Affairs and L.A. Inc., the city’s tourism bureau, is similar: to make what would otherwise be a disconnected series of discrete events presented by individual groups and venues into a movement or a brand.

Also at Tuesday’s kickoff event, actor-writer Alec Mapa recited many of Arts Month's events. Among the possibilities, he noted, is a Jan. 11 concert at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall, which includes the L.A. premiere of “Louganis,” composer Luciano Chessa’s musical tribute to Olympic diver Greg Louganis. “It’s scored for piano and electric toothbrushes,” Mapa noted. “So it’s artistic and hygienic.”

-- Mike Boehm

Above: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Credit: Anders Debel Hansen/AFP/Getty Images