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Santa Monica Council, Arts Panel Clash Over Culture

August 11, 1985|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

Ever since the Santa Monica City Council created the Santa Monica Arts Commission in 1982, the two groups have seemed somewhat puzzled by one another.

When the commission supported a local gallery's plans to place an expensive sculpture on the median outside its storefront, the council opposed the idea on the grounds that a business such as McDonald's might ask to put its golden arches there too.

Some commissioners privately speculated that the council couldn't tell the difference between a golden arch and a fine work of art, anyway. But William Jennings, the new council liaison to the group, charged recently that it is the commission that needs advice on how to run an arts program.

Jennings said the commission has alienated contributors and ignored artistic opportunities during the past three years. He said he plans to encourage the group to reassess its program and improve relations with the business community.

"In order for things to work well, the commission has to be well respected and accepted in all parts of the community," Jennings said. "It will probably take the remainder of this year to develop a good two- to three-year (municipal art) program."

The nine-member commission oversees civic art and cultural projects. It receives funds from the city budget although its volunteer members are Santa Monica residents who are appointed by the City Council. There are two paid administrators.

Since Jennings' appointment, two commissioners have resigned. Bruria Finkel and Max Benavidez quit last month after Jennings told the group that it should elect a chairman who would appeal to local businessmen.

Finkel and Benavidez called the recommendation "brazen, unconscionable and immoral" and stormed out of the meeting after Commissioner Lindsay Shields was elected to head the commission. Shields said she regretted the resignations. She acknowledged that the group needs to work out some problems, but called Jennings' criticisms overblown.

Shields, who is employed as the director of the Public Corporation for the Arts in Long Beach, pointed out that the commission sponsors several projects, including the highly successful Thursday-night concert series on the Santa Monica Pier and the Natural Elements Sculpture Park along the beach. It also runs the city's murals program, maintains the Art Bank, a program that brings contemporary art into Santa Monica, sponsors plays and is planning a new Santa Monica gateway at Centinela Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard.

"The Santa Monica arts program is too new to be compared to those in other cities," Shields said. "It took a couple of years to determine which way things should go. Now we're ready to put the thing into action."

Shields conceded that fund-raising has been a weak point for the commission. But she said that the appointment of new members to the commission's fund-raising foundation should bring in bigger donations.

"The business community has only been approached once," Shields said. "People gave, but those in charge never followed up. So hardly any connection has been made. You can't say that the business community doesn't support us. It's just that they haven't been tapped."

The city has mandated that the commission raise matching funds for all city monies not earmarked for staffing and administrative costs. Meanwhile, the city budget for the arts has steadily increased. The commission received $86,165 for 1982-83 and $101,769 in 1983-84. During the past couple of years, the budget has climbed to about $125,000.

Private fund-raising, however, produced about $15,000 in 1984-85, and $10,000 for 1985-86. Commission Director David Lutz said the group is planning a big fund-raiser before the end of the year.

Councilman James Conn, the original liaison to the commission, said the group is suffering "growing pains." He said the commission initially took on projects that were too large, but seems back on track now.

"I think Lindsay Shields will make it work," Conn said. "She's bright, level-headed and she's organized. With a new organization, the first three years are always the hardest time. I expect years four, five and six to be the victory years. In some sense, it's right that things should be happening now."

Mayor Christine Reed, who originally opposed the formation of the commission, said she still has doubts about it.

Reed said her fears about "the arts getting sucked into the political realm" have proven accurate. She agreed that the group may be going through a "shakedown period," but added that it may be impossible to conduct a successful arts program with the city trying to play an active role.

"I personally continue to think that they should be cut loose from their official linkage to the city," Reed said, "because all of their decisions continue to get questioned and brought back into the political realm."

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