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Hahn Saves City Cultural Affairs Agency From the Ax

March 18, 2004|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Instead of abolishing the city's Cultural Affairs Department, an idea that outraged and mobilized arts supporters after it surfaced last week, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn said Wednesday that he would preserve the agency and maintain its popular arts grants and educational programs while finding other ways to streamline it in the face of a municipal budget crisis.

Hahn said he aimed to "refocus" the department, including giving it a new mandate to pump up tourism by promoting the city's cultural attractions. To help him plan changes in arts policy, he named John Emerson, chairman of the Music Center of Los Angeles County, to head a new mayoral advisory council for the arts.

The mayor also said he was interested -- if the budget crunch allowed -- in creating a new job of deputy mayor for the arts. Billionaire arts patron Eli Broad, whom the mayor consulted on what to do about the Cultural Affairs Department, proposed the idea as a way to raise L.A.'s profile as a center for the arts as well as the entertainment industry.

"I'd love for the Cultural Affairs Department to continue to do what they do so well, but there can be this additional focus," Hahn said. "We think it's important that Los Angeles is a cultural center, and we think it's important to keep Cultural Affairs."

A successful arts-tourism initiative, the mayor said, would bring in hotel taxes that could be funneled back into the city's spending on its arts programs. A $7-million chunk of Cultural Affairs' current $11.8-million budget comes from tourism taxes.

Word surfaced last week that the mayor's budget advisors, faced with filling an estimated $250-million gap for the coming fiscal year, were considering doing away with Cultural Affairs and assigning some of its work to other city agencies. That news generated an outpouring from arts supporters.

"I can safely say there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of e-mails, phone calls and letters to our office," said Doane Liu, deputy mayor overseeing the budget process. Liu outlined Hahn's plan to spare but focus the department during a meeting Wednesday at the California African American Museum, convened by arts leaders concerned that Cultural Affairs and its $3 million in annual arts grants were in jeopardy.

Broad, a key figure in the building of Walt Disney Concert Hall and donor of $60 million last year to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was among those the mayor turned to. That led to the idea of preserving Cultural Affairs, but with a new tourism thrust.

"Part of the problem this city has is that entertainment and the motion picture industry is so dominant. We don't package the arts; we don't market them," Broad said, at least not on the scale of such other cultural capitals as New York, London and Paris. "I think this is an opportunity to upgrade the arts."

Emerson said Hahn left it to him to pick about 15 to 20 people to serve on an ad hoc committee to advise on changes in Cultural Affairs. He expects the panel to meet by month's end. He said he was among those who called the mayor to object to elimination of the department.

"As a supporter of the mayor's, I told him I thought it was a bad idea for Los Angeles, and he was very responsive," Emerson said. "It was important for him to get out in front of the issue, and he did that today."

Margie J. Reese, Cultural Affairs' general manager, said in a statement that she looked forward to working with the budget team and the new arts council "to develop a plan that supports the mayor's goal of keeping the department intact for Los Angeles.... We greatly appreciate the groundswell of support ... from the arts community and the general public."

The department, whose annual spending of $11.8 million is a blip in a $5-billion municipal budget, already does some work in promoting tourism, said Will Caperton y Montoya, its director of marketing and development. That includes helping plan itineraries for travel agents and travel journalists who will gather for a conference in Los Angeles next month. The idea, he said, is to expose those visitors to both big institutions and the grass-roots arts scene. "We would now be asked to perform a more active role," he said.

Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa praised Hahn's decision not to implement "an ill-thought-out proposal to eliminate a Cultural Affairs Department that is already among the most underfunded of any big city in the nation." He said that giving Cultural Affairs added responsibility for promoting tourism was worth considering, provided the city was willing to fund the added mandate.

Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group that represents local government arts agencies nationwide, said cultural tourism is part of the agenda for most big-city arts agencies. The best, he said, manage to strike a balance between alerting the outside world to arts attractions in their cities and nurturing the arts down to the neighborhood level.

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Times staff writer Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.

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