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A patron at the helm?

L.A.'s cultural leaders size up the mayor after 18 months and ask: Is there ...

January 07, 2007|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

HEY, is that any way to talk about the mayor of Los Angeles?

In the play "Water & Power," written by Richard Montoya for the comedy troupe Culture Clash, a character describes Antonio Villaraigosa like this: "Underneath those expensive suits beats the heart of a homey who got kicked out of Cathedral High."

Is that insolent evaluation OK with His Honor?

"I love those guys, I really do," Villaraigosa replies. "Like Bertolt Brecht, theirs is a people's art that reflects the struggles, trials and tribulations, hopes and aspirations of the community."

Then, seated in his stately offices, Villaraigosa flips open his suit jacket to show the label: Emilio Yuste. "People always say that, but actually my suits aren't expensive if you look at them," he says. "I'm lucky that I kind of fit off-the-rack."

Villaraigosa's seamless segue from Brecht to affordable suits is typical of his style when discussing arts and culture in Los Angeles: half sound bite and half spontaneity.

The mayor's role, says Villaraigosa, is "to promote the arts, to galvanize the city around the arts." He ticks the points off on his fingers. "To support, promote, galvanize."

The mayor believes that, as a cultural capital, Los Angeles no longer needs to beg for attention. "I think people are increasingly realizing that Los Angeles is a world-class center for arts and culture," he says.

At the same time, Villaraigosa knows the stats: "L.A. spends less on the arts on a per capita basis than almost any city in the country," he observes. "We spend about $3.23, New York spends $14, San Francisco $27 and Chicago -- I don't know what the number is, but it's higher, much higher, and we've got to change that."

Adds the mayor: "I intend, in coming years, with public-private initiative, to really increase our investment in the arts. And not just around the idea of cultural tourism; I think we need to promote the arts for art's sake," says Villaraigosa, whose offices are filled with a revolving gallery of loaned artworks by local artists, including such luminaries as Robert Graham and Patssi Valdez, as well as works by senior citizens and students.

Villaraigosa shrugs when asked about L.A.'s apparent defensiveness when it comes to comparisons with New York: "I actually don't think about New York, to be honest. I don't. I believe that L.A. is the city of America's hope and its promise. It is to the world what New York was in the 20th century and London was in the 19th. There is an energy here in L.A. that is very different from almost anywhere else."

Assessing the actions

THERE'S no question that many in the arts backed his run for mayor and had high expectations that he would be an energetic supporter of culture. Now, a year and a half into his administration, does Villaraigosa seem to be living up to these expectations?

To some, it appears that he is putting his money -- that is, the city's money -- where his mouth is, investing to bring a stalled city mural project back to life. Others are impatient, saying that although he can be eloquent on the subject, he spends little time on these issues and they wish he'd focus more attention on boosting the arts. They are waiting for him to make a key appointment: a Cultural Affairs Department manager who will draft a new blueprint for the city's arts policy.

Artists had reason to hope that the city was getting a different kind of mayor when Villaraigosa took office. His predecessor, James K. Hahn, outraged many by announcing plans to dismantle the Cultural Affairs Department, a primary source of grants for grass-roots arts events and artists. Hahn reversed his decision one week later -- and it was then-Councilman Villaraigosa who acted to reinstate $1.7 million of Hahn's proposed $3.9-million cut to the department's then-$11.8-million budget.

Detractors, however, point out that he hasn't done as much for the department as mayor. He has increased the budget only from $9.58 million in 2005-06 to $9.94 million for 2006-07. (These figures were provided by Cultural Affairs.)

Adolfo V. Nodal, Cultural Affairs general manager from 1988 to 2001, is one of many who point out that Villaraigosa's action as a councilman helped garner support from artists during his run for mayor. "The arts community was really behind him, because they were so against Hahn," says Nodal, now project director for the Annenberg Foundation. (For his part, Hahn calls the charge that he was indifferent to the arts "a rap," blaming the economy: "Everyone was taking cuts," he says.)

Philanthropist Eli Broad, who spearheaded the fundraising effort for the Walt Disney Concert Hall, says he saw signs of Villaraigosa's commitment to the arts long before Villaraigosa became mayor. "When he was speaker of the Assembly and we needed help," Broad says, "he arranged for $5 million from the state budget, twice, for Disney Hall."

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