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L.A. Arts Community Needs a Political Champion

November 25, 2001|SUSAN ANDERSON | Susan Anderson is a Los Angeles writer and a board member of the HeArt Project, a nonprofit organization providing arts training to low-income teens

More than 150,000 visual, literary and performing artists live and work in the Los Angeles region. There are 1,000 active arts organizations here. The arts help drive major local industries like tourism, fashion, television and motion pictures. But in the city of Los Angeles, where most arts activity is concentrated, support for the arts is shamefully small, and the intersections between community life, political power and artistic expression are unfortunately rare.

When they do intersect, the result is seldom uplifting. After officials at Los Angeles International Airport papered over floor art depicting nudes at Terminal 4, the resulting controversy produced charges of censorship. More recently, an exhibit at the Watts Towers Art Center was yanked after city officials worried that its images of cops and gang members in same-sex dancing poses would provoke violence. Again, there were charges of censorship.

In both cases, not a word was heard from Mayor James K. Hahn or members of the City Council. Their silence points up the city's embarrassing lack of political leadership when it comes to the arts--and the corresponding need for at least a deputy mayor of the arts.

In the current climate of uncertainty and fear, artists have a special contribution to make; there is no tradeoff for the indispensable cultural interchange their works encourage. "Artists can be a resource that dramatically improves the quality of life and economic vitality of a city," says former City Councilman Joel Wachs, the city's most persistent arts supporter.

But L.A.'s politicians "don't understand ... that it's politically beneficial to support the arts," says former county Supervisor Ed Edelman, a strong arts advocate. "Funding for the arts is as important as demands for essential services."

Los Angeles lags far behind in its public investment in the arts. According to a report by Americans for the Arts, New York spent more than 10 times--$117 million versus $11 million--the amount that Los Angeles did last year. Chicago, Dallas and Charlotte, N.C. also invested more in the arts than L.A.. Within California, Los Angeles spent $4.30 per capita on the arts in 2000, far behind San Francisco's $28.85 and roughly half as much as San Diego's $8.80. Recently, the Long Beach City Council unanimously approved a $1 million increase for its Public Corporation for the Arts, a hike of 133%, causing one city official to crow, "The political leadership realizes that Long Beach is poised to become a 21st century city of arts and culture."

There is no reason why Los Angeles can't, too. Yes, Sept. 11 has pushed security issues to the top of the agenda, and the economic slowdown means fewer public resources to foster the development of the arts in Los Angeles. But there are new political actors in town, from the mayor's office to the Cultural Affairs Department to the City Council, and these officials--in particular, the mayor--can still demonstrate their commitment to the city's cultural advancement in economically lean times.

For starters, Hahn could appoint artists to public commissions and citizen advisory groups, not just to arts-related panels. "We ask lawyers, engineers, bankers, and developers to get involved, why not the creative community?" questions Wachs. Instead of segregating the arts, they should be "marbled throughout the system," which would add a new dimension of original thinking and problem-solving to all aspects of urban decision-making.

The mayor could, for the first time in the city's history, appoint a deputy mayor for the arts. Currently, there is no citywide point of contact between the artistic community and the city's power structure. The deputy mayor could provide one. A deputy mayor could work with such city departments as transportation, housing and public works to give our public spaces greater cultural impact.

Finally, the mayor could give the Cultural Affairs Department a more pro-active role in the city's civic life by charging it to call an arts summit. Such a summit would explore and document the ways in which hundreds of artists and arts organizations already work with civic and neighborhood representatives not only to enhance L.A.'s aesthetic experiences, but also to prevent crime, assist in community development, teach in classrooms and provide social services. This baseline assessment could be the foundation for new collaborations and increased spending to support them.

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