These are rough times for the arts. The budget of the California Arts Council was just slashed more than 90%. The Los Angeles County Arts Commission's total grant allocation is down $279,000 for the fiscal year 2003-2004. Art activities at some L.A. schools rely significantly on help from volunteers. But there's a bright spot: The public art facilities at Barnsdall Art Park, that Hollywood aerie deeded to the city of Los Angeles by an eccentric visionary named Aline Barnsdall in 1927, are back in business after a three-year renovation.
The park is home to the Municipal Art Gallery, the Gallery Theatre, the Junior Arts Center, Barnsdall Arts Center (the adult arts education program) and Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House. "It's looked at as a model by other places," says Leslie Thomas, assistant general manager of the Cultural Affairs Department, one of three city departments overseeing Barnsdall. "It has a long, long history."
And a colorful one. In 1957, 26,000 people attended the celebrated "The Family of Man" photography show organized by New York's Museum of Modern Art, in Barnsdall's original municipal gallery, a temporary structure designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Later that year and long before the era of corporate-sponsored blockbuster exhibits, the park hosted a Vincent van Gogh show. Oddly, Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish retrospectives in the mid-'60s weren't wildly popular. The shows were "ahead of their time," suggests then-art coordinator Curt Opliger.
The current Municipal Art Gallery was completed in 1971, the year before the controversial "Soviet Union: Arts and Crafts in Ancient Times and Today" show. In the mid-'70s, the gallery narrowed its focus to Southern California artists and has since exhibited works by John Outterbridge, Helen Lundeberg, Carlos Almarez, George Herms, Roland Reiss, Judy Dater and Laddie John Dill, to name a few. "Probabilities," the first survey of Los Angeles artist George Stone's work, opened Sept. 9.
And it's all brought to you by the city of Los Angeles. Over the years, thousands upon thousands of children and adults have taken affordable classes at Barnsdall, often from big-name art figures. Guerrilla poster artist Robbie Conal taught workshops in the '90s and proudly recalls one 9-year-old's take on Disneyland. "He drew bad Mickey with money bags. Of course, I loved that."
While the $17 million spent to date in renovation has given the park a spiffy new look, it's still a work in progress. Residence A, which housed the adult classes for years, is out of commission indefinitely due to structural safety concerns, and adult classes will be held in the Junior Arts Center, meaning fewer classes overall. There's no place to put kilns, which means no ceramic classes for the time being. On the positive side, an elevator from Vermont Avenue and Barnsdall Place up to the park is slated to be built in the next year or so, as a gift from nearby Kaiser Permanente hospital, giving easier access to Metro riders and visitors from the medical center.
Whether Barnsdall can match the excitement of the '60s and '70s, the glory years of the annual All City Outdoor Art Festival, open to any Angeleno submitting an art piece, remains to be seen. But what Thomas calls "this jewel in the crown of Los Angeles" has received a long overdue polishing.