The meeting was not going well.
On a chilly evening in November, a handful of officials from the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and citizens of Hollywood gathered around a table in an empty theater, borrowed for the evening, at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions.
The occasion was a meeting of the fledgling Mid-City Regional Arts Council, one of nine new community groups established by Cultural Affairs in hopes of breaking down the vast area the department serves into more manageable parts.
Adolfo V. "Al" Nodal, general manager of Cultural Affairs, does not attend every meeting, leaving that duty to deputy Roella Hsieh Louie, but he came to Mid-City--which includes Hollywood and Mid-Wilshire--because, as he frankly admitted to the group, "This is a troubled one; this isn't coming together."
While things have gone smoothly in other geographic areas, talking culture in the heart of Hollywood led to a clash between Nodal and Nyla Arslanian, the president of the existing Hollywood Arts Council. Everything from how to celebrate the millennium to who would print the new regional council brochure was seized on as an opportunity for dispute. (Nodal observed later that it's easier to work in communities with no established arts councils of their own.)
It ended up with a frustrated Nodal begging the small group who showed up to "hang in there and not give up" during the formative stages.
It's not as though Nodal expected instant success with this new venture. This year, celebrating his 10th anniversary on the job, Nodal, 48, is used to growing pains overseeing the cultural development of a diverse region.
"I think L.A. culture is a combination of this sort of vanguard American culture that we had here in the '50s and '60s: car culture, the Valley, the pinstripers, guys who work out on the beach; very different from East Coast culture," Nodal mused. "And it's now mixed with this kind of immigrant culture. And I guess the third element of it is the entertainment industry, which is part and parcel of it; everyone is touched by it.
"That's L.A. I think it's neat. I think it's great."
Nodal often uses the word "neat" to describe the department's neighborhood-based projects and cultural centers.
It's a small, vernacular word, but peculiarly appropriate for projects and programs often dwarfed by flashier symbols of progress in the arts world, such as Brentwood's 1-year-old, billion-dollar Getty Center.
Recent "neat" efforts include returning paddle boats to downtrodden MacArthur Park (Nodal lives in a penthouse apartment mere blocks away); relighting some of the city's historic neon signs; and the Nov. 22 opening of the Mariachi Plaza--a pale-pink stone gazebo that looks out of place in a rundown Boyle Heights business district.
"That's our role, to provide grass at the sidewalk level, I mean, art at the sidewalk level," Nodal said, excitedly mixing metaphors during a discussion of some sidewalk-level, grass-roots arts projects at the Cultural Affairs Department's downtown offices on Spring Street. "That's really what we're about.
"I love this big stuff, I think it's really neat, I am a supporter of every one of these big buildings. But we need the whole thing. Our centers are sort of neat because they are arts centers, but they are also community centers."
What Nodal--and other city cultural affairs officials across the country--do is less visible than edifices like the Getty Center. Their job is to funnel the money set aside in the city's annual budget--in L.A., $12 million--into hundreds of arts and cultural activities. It means fighting for a portion of the same pot that pays for police, schools and trash collection.
It's about "partnerships," "coalitions," "infrastructure," "development," "outreach"--the kind of in-house jargon that doesn't mean much to a layperson. Pieces of the department's $12-million budget turn up everywhere from big, downtown performing arts companies such as Los Angeles Opera to a neighborhood dance troupe in Pacoima.
Right now, Nodal is pushing to establish a formal arrangement with arts-starved Los Angeles public schools to have local arts organizations adopt a school, to provide artists in residence and other services. Four years ago, the department contributed $50,000 toward adding the Department of Cultural Tourism to the existing Los Angeles Visitors and Convention Bureau. And among Nodal's other ongoing projects is establishing partnerships with arts organizations in Mexico, including Tijuana's Casa de Cultura.
Cultural affairs departments are the glue, not the parts. And with few exceptions, the general public doesn't know what they are. Some inside this circle observe this is particularly true in star-struck L.A., where the entertainment industry eclipses all else.