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If the Arts Go, L.A.'s Soul Goes

April 11, 1993

Keeping Los Angeles interesting might seem the very least of our problems. This city, with all its problems, is a compendium of the future. Here, where the Third World collides with the First, where Asia meets Europe and Africa in America, where indigenes and immigrants (in several senses of both words) struggle for a common language, no one need lack for mental challenge. Without immodesty--or with at most an ironic pride--we may say of our city what Samuel Johnson said of London: "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."

The trouble, of course, is that the world's recent interest in Los Angeles has fixed on its problems. Los Angeles, once a byword for sunshine and the light heart, is on the point of disappearing into its noir version. The shadow that the city has never lacked is devouring the reality. People still come here. But they come decreasingly for the fun of it. And if prospective visitors have trouble imagining Los Angeles as a city to enjoy, so, of course, do Angelenos. The party can't happen for the guests if it stops happening for the hosts.

That's why we think it would be penny-wise and pound-foolish for the Los Angeles City Council to gut its Cultural Affairs Department. The council is about to consider a proposal by Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky to divert the department's most important funding source, a hotel tax, to general revenue. The budgetary pressure that prompts this proposal is grievous, of course, and no one in the alarmed Los Angeles arts community is accusing Yaroslavsky, or anyone else, of Philistinism.

The fact remains, however, that this change would require a 50% cut in a small program, while many far larger programs are expecting smaller cuts, of 20% to 30%. Moreover, this change in cultural affairs funding affects not just current support but the structure of future support. When recovery comes, it will not come for cultural affairs if hotel tax money is, by new definition, no longer available for these purposes.

The shape the cuts will take is particularly devastating. The Cultural Affairs Department has never given fellowships to artists. Its money has gone to grants aimed at bringing arts to the people and, above all, to Los Angeles' extraordinary, year-round parade of festivals: Concerts in the Park, the Circus Festival, the Children's Film Festival, Chinese New Year, the Hollywood Bowl Summer Festival, and on and on. Ending all this at one cruel stroke would have enormous, and enormously negative, symbolic importance. It would mean that the grim mood had become permanent, that Los Angeles, for good and earnest, had given up on itself.

We are talking pennies: The cultural affairs agency looms small in the overall budget. An old Persian saying runs: "If you have but two pennies, with one buy bread, and with the other hyacinths for your soul." Los Angeles must not lose its soul.

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