Despite a 19.8% budget cut that sets L.A.'s arts funding back to where it stood eight years ago, the city's Cultural Affairs Department will try to preserve grants and after-school classes that its general manager, Margie J. Reese, considers inviolable.
The department can "absolutely not" keep those core programs intact on its $9.5-million budget, down from $11.8 million in fiscal 2003-04, Reese says. She thinks that streamlining and doing without new equipment and some supplies can go only so far, so she is planning stepped-up appeals to corporations and other private donors to augment what Mayor James K. Hahn and the City Council have allotted from a $5.3-billion municipal budget.
Reese also will not rule out returning to the council with requests for more money, if that's what it would take to maintain educational offerings in the city's network of 18 community arts centers.
She sketched her vision for weathering lean times during a "State of the Arts in L.A." address Monday at a $30-a-head luncheon her department organized at the downtown Millennium Biltmore hotel. The event was attended by 330 people.
Last week, Reese talked about the priorities that shaped her decisions on how to try to live within the reduced budget -- or rather, how she hopes to expand the pie so her department won't be confined by spending limits she considers unlivable.
In the neighborhoods, Reese says, programs in the community centers often are children's lifeline to the arts -- and a way to stay out of trouble. "At a time when young people have fewer options, closing the centers wasn't an option." And she says it makes no sense to cut $3.2 million in city grants -- awarded by panels of experts -- that small arts organizations often use as a highlight on their resumes so they can impress private donors and land additional grants.
Among the cost-saving gambits the Cultural Affairs Department is attempting are new approaches to coordinating art exhibitions at the community centers: Instead of duplicating efforts at each center, Reese is establishing two curatorial teams from her 65-member staff to organize the shows. The artists whose work is being shown will be asked to do the hands-on hanging of shows and other labor-intensive preparations, so that staff members in the community centers can concentrate on educational programs. Many of the community festivals the department has helped fund in the past will get advice instead of cash this year; one new initiative calls for getting multiple festivals to coordinate their purchases so they can get better prices through bulk buying.
But Reese and Leslie Thomas, the department's assistant general manager, acknowledged that the spending plan, which balances their budget on paper, might not hold up in reality.
Among the soft spots is its nearly $1-million cut from last year's spending on "as needed" employees -- the part-time workers who teach many of the art classes or form the crews attempting the Sisyphean task of filling cracks and putting back decorative glass bits that rain and heat cause to fall out of the Watts Towers, one of the city's most distinctive, but vulnerable, landmarks.
As a financial backstop, the department aims to raise $1.2 million in private donations, augmenting the $9.5 million in city-generated funds that come mostly from hotel occupancy taxes.
Last year, most of the $800,000 raised from private sources was used to help neighborhood groups attend performances, according to Will Caperton y Montoya, the department's marketing and development director. This year, he says, the bulk of donations will go toward preserving more basic services, such as classes.
Michael Alexander, co-chair of Arts for L.A., a consortium of leaders of nonprofit arts organizations, says there's concern that the Cultural Affairs Department, which is supposed to be publicly funded, could elbow other arts groups away from a limited table of potential private donors.
"It puts a very heavy responsibility for Cultural Affairs to manage this in a way that could become a win-win" for both the city government's arts efforts and those of private nonprofits, Alexander says. The onus, he says, is on Reese to bring new donors to the table rather than tap ones that private arts groups already count on.
Randy Cohen, vice president for research at the Washington-based Americans for the Arts, an advocacy and service group for the nation's municipal arts agencies, says other cities, including Chicago, San Antonio and Atlanta, seek private grants to augment their programs.
Reese says she will be sensitive to concerns like Alexander's and acknowledges there's a philosophical argument to be made that a public arts agency should be fueled strictly by public dollars. But right now, she says, the practical needs of neighborhoods outweigh everything else. Fundraising, she says is imperative given the shortages she foresees under her allotted budget.
"If I believe the arts permeate our lives," she says, "I have to be saying that to people with giving power."