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Arts enabler or L.A. booster?

The arts community is at odds over whether Cultural Affairs should have to add PR flack to its job description.

April 24, 2004|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

During the 36th annual International Pow Wow -- a four-day travel industry trade show beginning today in Los Angeles -- the host city will be placing heavy emphasis on selling its art and culture to the world.

Among the efforts to encourage Los Angeles tourism is a film project commissioned from CalArts by LA Inc., the city's convention and visitors bureau, that promotes Los Angeles as, in the words of LA Inc., "a vibrant cultural epicenter and edgy arts maverick." The film will be presented to conventioneers and visiting journalists tomorrow in the edgy new Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, or REDCAT, at the curvaceous, but still edgy, Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Not part of the show, however -- but certainly part of the equation -- is a new question that has recently lent an edge of contention to the L.A. arts community: Should the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, which operates community arts centers, supports festivals and programs and provides more than $3 million in grants to local artists and arts organizations, play a role in promoting L.A. as a cultural destination?

Feelings run deep, and in recent weeks, opinions expressed by the denizens of more than a few neighborhood theaters, artist lofts and rehearsal studios seem very different from the boosterism likely to be heard in the Pow Wow convention halls.

Why are these people talking now?

It all started last month, when as part of a citywide cost-cutting drive, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn targeted Cultural Affairs for possible elimination. He was eventually persuaded to spare the department but with a recommended cut of $3.6 million -- about 30% of its $11.8-million annual budget -- and a push to focus some of its modest resources on aiding cultural tourism.

A 25-member volunteer Mayor's Council for the Arts, headed by Music Center Chairman John Emerson, was hastily assembled to advise Hahn on cultural matters, with tourism front and center. Robert Barrett, former vice president of domestic marketing for the Convention and Visitors Bureau (now LA Inc.) and currently an advertising executive, has since been named chairman of a council subcommittee on cultural tourism.

Also with cultural tourism in mind, arts patron Eli Broad -- the billionaire businessman who led the fundraising effort for the $274-million Disney Hall -- recommended to Hahn that the city appoint a volunteer arts commissioner, a high-profile spokesperson for the arts who would report to the mayor.

Hahn liked the idea, and Broad now chairs an eight-member committee dedicated to finding such a recognizable face. The search committee includes Emerson; actor Sidney Poitier; Barry Munitz, president and chief executive of the J. Paul Getty Trust; Andrea Rich, president and director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Music Center President Stephen Rountree; Antonia Hernandez, president and chief executive of the California Community Foundation; and East West Bank Chairman, President and Chief Executive Dominic Ng.

Some local artists, as well as cultural affairs officials here and elsewhere, see cultural tourism as the potential savior of the Los Angeles arts scene. Such tourism not only raises the profile of the arts, they argue, but fills Cultural Affairs' coffers with revenue through the city's transient occupancy tax. One-fourteenth of that 14% tax on hotel rooms goes directly to Cultural Affairs; many cities have similar "bed taxes" that feed their culture departments. Last year, the total for Cultural Affairs was $7 million, more than half the department's total budget.

In Florida, Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, says his department staffers cheered when they heard that L.A.'s Cultural Affairs Department had been spared. He points out that his city's arts face the same competition from fun, sun and theme parks as Los Angeles and have benefited from a push for cultural tourism.

Spring says that Miami has also gotten mileage out of promoting the department's charismatic board chair, businesswoman Rosa Sugranes, as a spokeswoman for the arts. She delivers an annual "state of the department" address for cultural affairs that receives significant media coverage.

In Miami, Spring says, cultural affairs does not directly fund cultural tourism -- rather, it piggybacks on the resources of the convention and tourism bureau. The key, he observes, is balance. "We collaborate with them on every piece of collateral material they produce. They're spending hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, and we're spending tens of thousands to partner with them."

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