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Tiny Investment, Priceless Returns

Tax-supported culture helps fill L.A.'s coffers while enriching its residents' souls.

March 21, 2004|Susan Anderson and Ed Edelman | Susan Anderson is president of CivicArts, which links corporations, foundations and government to target markets and constituents through arts and culture. Ed Edelman is a former city councilman and county supervisor. Both serve on the boards of several arts organizations.

Los Angeles arts leaders had come to protest the possible elimination of the city's Cultural Affairs Department last week, but Mayor James K. Hahn had a surprise for them. He seemed to agree with his arts-minded audience that an L.A. without a dedicated agency for arts and culture would be unacceptable. The department's mission would be focused on promoting cultural tourism, the mayor said.

To further that end, philanthropist Eli Broad was named honorary chairman of a new mayoral advisory council for the arts, and John Emerson, chairman and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles County Music Center, was designated to lead it. Apparently, the mayor calculated that the money to be saved from eliminating the Cultural Affairs Department would be less than the tax revenue generated by pushing it to attract cultural dollars.

Studies by the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council show that one of every four tourist dollars is spent on cultural activities. About 1% of the city's hotel tax goes to Cultural Affairs Department, which it uses to fund community and neighborhood arts programs.

It remains to be seen whether the mayor's redefined Cultural Affairs Department is more than a political tactic to quiet angry arts supporters as the city struggles to close an estimated $250-million budget shortfall. But the arts community shouldn't simply declare victory and accept the mayor's largely commercial vision of his new arts council. Rather, it should emerge from the affair with a new determination to position arts and culture at the center of city life.

Aristotle said that people "come together in cities to live. They remain in cities to live the good life." The arts are essential to that good life, but cultural expertise in city government is rare. Elected officials are ignorant of what the Cultural Affairs Department has supported; few know the range of the department's beneficiaries, from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to small volunteer-run community groups. And there is little knowledge of how other cities support and promote the arts.

At the same time, city arts organizations have largely pursued self-interest. As a result, the L.A. arts community lacks an effective citywide umbrella organization to disseminate information on arts and cultural programs and to build community relations, which may have made it easier for budget cutters to target the Cultural Affairs Department. Arts leaders could claim credit for saving the department, but unfortunately the reason wasn't broad-based support among significant portions of the population. That kind of support requires arts leaders to have vision and an overall strategy for preserving and expanding the city's arts and cultural assets and programs, which they don't have.

The Cultural Affairs Department annually spends about $11.8 million of a total city budget of $5.1 billion. On a per capita basis, that makes Los Angeles the lowest spender on the arts of any metropolitan area in California. For 2003-04, San Francisco spent $16.74 per capita, San Diego $7.76. L.A. came in at a measly $1.17 -- in a state that ranks last in U.S. arts spending.

As embarrassingly low as it is, L.A. city spending on the arts plays a special role.

Besides providing a stamp of excellence and approval, city grants reach into the diverse communities and neighborhoods that make up Los Angeles, allowing residents to enjoy the arts in their own backyards. They leverage additional funds from other public and private sources at the rate of at least 2 to 1.

City investment in the arts makes possible community orchestras and theaters, neighborhood galleries, arts classes and local festivals, many of them free. The Museum of Contemporary Art uses $57,000 of city money to fund education programs. The Shakespeare Festival/LA spends its $30,000 in grant money to stage free theater. The Center Theatre Group receives $95,000 for outreach programs. Unlike private funds, the law and regulations require that city art dollars be spent in Los Angeles for Angelenos regardless of ethnicity, neighborhood, age and background.

When tough budget choices are required, public safety tends to trump arts spending. But L.A. shouldn't have to choose between the arts and cops, because the arts can help prevent crime. UCLA professor James Catterall has shown that arts education contributes to academic achievement, particularly for low-income students. Arts programs in corrections facilities result in lower recidivism and less crime, according to a U.S. Department of Justice study. The arts also promote job skills and creativity needed in the workforce, says the National Governors Assn. And Stanford professor Shirley Brice Heath has shown that community arts programs engage disadvantaged youth more effectively than other programs.

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