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15 More Minutes: Checking In on Joel Wachs

The Longtime L.A. City Councilman is Ebullient About His Job in New York as President of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. He Doesn't Miss Politics, but He Does Yearn for L.A.

April 21, 2002|ERIC PAPE

Joel Wachs looks peppy for a man of 63 as he stands on 7th Avenue across the street from the Manhattan hotel he called home for six months. Sliding into a restaurant booth for breakfast, he's beaming. It's not exactly what you might expect of someone who moved to New York last year in defeat, walking away from three decades of public service in Los Angeles after losing his third race for mayor.

"For 30 years of my life, I had to ask for money, which is the most horrible side of politics, and now I give it away," he says.

The money he's doling out is from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which supports artists. Wachs is president and CEO of the foundation. "We don't have to deal with politicians or anyone." After toiling on L.A.'s City Council for so long, Wachs understands the meaning of such freedom better than most. Perhaps that is why, even in this glum, aging cafe with its faded interior and sinking booths, he is funnier, freer and more engaged than I ever expected.

Could this effervescent guy possibly be the same man so humbled a year ago?

The answer comes as I watch him meticulously cut his French toast into small pieces before taking the first bite. Yeah, it's the same Joel Wachs.

So, how's things?

"I am pinching myself, asking myself, 'Can this be real?' "

It is no small feat to escape decades on the City Council with your faculties intact, but Wachs' view isn't focused on the past. "That chapter is just closed. I am proud of my legacy, but I don't look back." With finality, he adds, "I have no desire to ever run for office again."

OK, but why New York?

"I came here to get another 15 minutes," he says with a smirk.

Before meeting Wachs, I had a hard time envisioning him amid the high-rises of midtown. We're talking about the perennial representative of Council District 2, the rising young Republican from the San Fernando Valley back when I was learning to walk. Orange groves still thrived in the Valley at the time of Wachs' first election. He seemed more secure in his job than a college professor. It wasn't hard to imagine him being carried out on a stretcher.

After crushing opponents election after election--eight in all--he set his gaze on the mayor's office. He ran in 1973. He lost. He tried again in 1993, while serving as council president. He lost again, this time to political novice Richard Riordan. Wachs reached for the grail one last time in 2001, running not as the populist Riordan had defeated. This time he finished a disappointing fourth, with 11% of the vote.

"There were six major candidates and only one was going to win," he says. "I'm a big boy. I can handle it."

One would have thought he'd begin to wind down. Not so. "A lot of people start setting their eyes toward retirement as opposed to a new career. I didn't really think about that. I just thought, 'What am I gonna do next?' " He was a well-known supporter of the arts, both as a council member and in private life, regularly spending one-quarter of his salary on art. As a member of the Andy Warhol Foundation board of directors, he also knew that its director had retired--but he had given the vacancy no thought. After all, the job was in New York, not L.A.

Then, unexpectedly, another board member asked Wachs whether he would take the job. "As disappointing as it was to lose the race, that this came along 48 hours later was amazing. It was like winning a lottery: Do what you love, in the legacy of Andy Warhol, and be well paid--it's a dream job!"

Wachs' interest in Warhol dates to the 1960s, when he discovered the artist as a trailblazer for personal liberation. Still, Wachs had doubts.

"When you visit New York, you say, 'This is great for, like, four days. But would I live here?' That is what I thought." Nonetheless, he signed a four-year contract, and then was surprised by the response in L.A.

"A number of people who I didn't even know wrote. They were in their 60s and they said, 'It is great to know that it is still possible.' I gather that it is hard to apply for jobs at 62."

He didn't expect that his new life choice might inspire his peers. "I just want to live every day of my life in a rewarding and exciting way," he says.

As he rambles on excitedly in Manhattan-speed sentences, it is clear that he is succeeding. Day to day, he administers a $150-million foundation with 22 employees, as well as the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. The foundation last year gave out between $5 million and $6 million in grants to arts organizations, some of which are having a harder time obtaining funding under a socially conservative National Endowment for the Arts. (Friends of Wachs have long suggested that he might one day head the NEA.)

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