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Cultural Affairs Director for Los Angeles to Resign

Arts: Adolfo Nodal, whose controversial overhaul of department established a model for nation, will step down in December. No successor has been named.

June 15, 2000|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saying that "12 years is enough," and offering no specific plans, Adolfo V. Nodal announced Wednesday that he will resign his post as general manager of the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, stepping down at the end of December.

Nodal, 50, a Cuban immigrant raised in Miami, is perhaps best known to the arts community as the architect of 1991's controversial "Cultural Masterplan," a 182-page document encouraging social responsibility on the part of artists. Because of its attempt to ensure equitable division of grants to various ethnic groups, the plan was attacked by some artists and critics as "the new tyranny" and "the new racism."

Despite the controversy, in the past decade the plan has become a blueprint for city arts departments across the country that face the same diversity issues as Los Angeles. Tomas Benitez, director of Self-Help Graphics, the noted East Los Angeles print workshop and gallery for Chicano art, praised Nodal for seeking unity and a "cultural spirit" for the sprawling city. "He [angered] a lot of people in the 'art for art's sake' camp, and that is what I like best about him," Benitez said.

Joanne Kozberg, president of the Los Angeles Performing Arts Center, got to know Nodal when she was director of the California Arts Council. "Al was a real leader in the field, a national leader," she said. "He has done an incredible job for the city of L.A., and the Cultural Affairs Department has blossomed into an extremely important city agency."

Nodal's successor has not been named. Mayor Richard Riordan's office has launched a national search for his replacement.

"I'm really trying to resist making any plans, because all my life I've gone from high school to college to graduate school, with two weeks in between jobs to this point," Nodal said Wednesday. "I just figured that 12 years is a good amount of time to be here.

"I turned 50 in March, my daughter [Saskia] is graduating from UC Berkeley, and it's the millennium," Nodal continued. "It just seemed like a good time to take a little break. I'm trying to open myself up to possibilities. I think the department is better off than when I came, and it's time to bring in some new blood here, and to keep moving forward."

Nodal formerly served as executive director of the Washington Project for the Arts in the nation's capitol, executive director of the New Orleans Contemporary Art Center, and in leadership positions with local arts organizations including Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and Otis College of Art and Design.

Nodal came to Cultural Affairs in 1987, shortly before the so-called "culture wars" over art and obscenity surfaced in Washington and the Southern California economy went into a tailspin. At the time, the Cultural Affairs budget was $3.5 million. The department's budget has since grown to nearly $16 million.

During his tenure, Nodal has spearheaded the relighting of historic neon signs throughout the city and the construction of Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights, and created Arts Partners, a coalition of city government, corporate sponsors and nonprofit arts organizations. Nodal is especially proud of establishing the Los Angeles Endowment for the Arts and individual artist grants. "I'm particularly interested in the individual grants, because the National Endowment for the Arts, because of [controversies over obscenity], has eliminated them," said Gordon Davidson, artistic director of downtown's Center Theatre Group. "It's an important symbol for the city."

Riordan was unavailable for comment Wednesday. Deputy Mayor Manuel Valencia said Nodal "in a sense redefined Cultural Affairs, and made it a model for cities across the nation. The mayor speaks about it all the time, the idea that Los Angeles is a city of creativity," Valencia said. "Al himself was a tremendous creative dynamo and really set the tone for the rest of the country as to what a serious Cultural Affairs Department ought to be doing."

Nodal worked closely with Riordan on the city's millennial celebration, which became a well publicized bust. Attendance was sparse at designated sites in the city, in part because of cold, drizzly weather, but also because the entertainment lacked the pizazz of other celebrations. The culminating laser-and-light show at the Hollywood sign paled in comparison with the glittery shows in New York City and Paris. Jay Leno, who participated in the Hollywood sign ceremony, even mocked it on his top-rated late night show. In the aftermath, there was talk in the arts community that Riordan was blaming Nodal and trying to force him from his post.

Valencia insists that there are "zero hard feelings" over the flop. "Al was a tremendous presence; he used L.A. like a canvas himself and painted a very bold and vivid Cultural Affairs Department. That is what the mayor is really looking at, and they have always been very close friends and professional colleagues," Valencia said.

Nodal acknowledges that the millennium celebration was "a piece of bad luck in my career," but adds: "It's just one of the many things I've tried to do in my life. The mayor and I had never really worked together as much before, and I got to really know the mayor, and like him a lot."

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