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Spaid, Nonprofits Deserve Accolades

August 28, 1995|FRED DEWEY | Fred Dewey is an emigre from New York City and a writer. He is board chair of Beyond Baroque, the Venice literary arts institution. His views do not necessarily reflect those of Beyond Baroque or its board. and

It is high time we focus in on the privatization and decline of public spaces, but Christopher Knight's treatment of the issue, and failure to name the powerful and commercially established people who exercise private influence privately, rather than up front, as has dealer-curator Sue Spaid, seems narrow and disturbingly reminiscent of old-style authoritarianism ("Nonprofit Groups' Credibility on Line With Dealer Shows," Calendar, Aug. 12).

Knight's understandable criticism of local nonprofits' questionable ways of staying afloat in desperate times ignores the unabashed, if hidden, way things are done in the museum world every day.

The problem is not Sue Spaid, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and the Santa Monica Museum of Art, but the invisible network of political dealing which, in private, determines the value of artworks, profits from this determination, then fails to support the democratic infrastructure necessary to keep a vibrant and struggling culture alive.

Those selling and collecting art befriend and consort with museum officials regularly, lobby for their artists, work closely with these officials, and even, in some cases, vacation with them. Big museums are deeply, if invisibly, linked to private support and influence, affecting their most minute decisions. Museums need art from private sources and create and shape shows to get it. Meanwhile, influential trustees and senior corporate executives benefit when the value of their collections, containing artists featured in museum shows, increases.

Knight's argument in favor of proper protocol for nonprofit public spaces is laudable. He neglects, however, to address the fact that the public infrastructure that would support such a protocol, so common, for example, in Europe's stable and rich cultural life, is not only minimal here, but unforgivably under attack. Further, in Los Angeles, the very private sector linked so inextricably with museums is not only giving appallingly little to these institutions, but completely abandoning those nourishing the seed corn of subsequent generations.

Singling out Sue Spaid and the nonprofits that hosted her as the sole chefs in this pottage of desperation seems misplaced, if perhaps unintentionally so. Spaid, notably, has historically stood as one of the city's most ingenious and democratic promoters of new and overlooked artists, especially women at varying stages in their careers. For her public contributions, she has been cited in both "Art in America" and the cutting-edge art press. Hiring Spaid is hardly the "Newt model" of the art world, as Knight intimates; if there is influence, it is in the open, for all to see. The problem lies not in the obvious, here, but in the extent to which private interests have long dominated public space in America and now threaten its very survival.

Knight's arguments, while often constructive and well-taken, are in this case aimed in the wrong direction.

Prominent, established spaces and forums presented--to a naive public--as free of commercial lobbying and cronyism are riddled with both, often unremarked because this is accepted practice and goes on out of the public's sight; Spaid and the smaller nonprofits around whom such relationships are more visible, face outright elimination due to a withering of public funds, even as they must endure harsh reprimands for doing hesitatingly what others do automatically under the color of polite society.

As someone who recently took over a board officer position at Beyond Baroque, a historically significant local nonprofit, and must solicit even meager corporate investment to pay for plumbing repairs and salaries, I find Knight's description of the very real problem of privatization hard to bear, and from a sector that could do much more to help. We are steering through increasingly dangerous waters; nonprofits have few choices left. Those industrious and creative individuals trying to shake up categories, and in doing so threaten to wake the local political structure to its long-neglected responsibilities, deserve accolades, not public dress-downs.

The time is overdue for elders of Los Angeles to heartily back the development of a public, civic tradition for the city. Then the necessary debate might commence, in proper fashion. Consciences must be roused to mark off and stabilize public space as a public activity, in the open.

Our survival depends on it: A city and its lasting culture must be built around the principle of freedom for all, not just what secret and savage power can grab. Los Angeles can become a place people again enjoy moving to and working for over the long term.

But making it requires innovative solutions. Those in positions of authority need to ease the road for independent and unconventional voices to flourish securely outside the commercial realm. Until this happens, it is unfair to chastise weak nonprofits and industrious individuals for trying, however they can, to keep art and independent spirit alive.

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