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CULTURE FROM THE TOP

The city's state of the arts

In a spirited conversation, five leaders weigh in on a world-stage role.

March 23, 2008

THE ARTS COMMUNITY IN LOS ANGELES has always seemed to exist somewhere in the shadows of the glitz, glamour and even scandals of the Hollywood entertainment world. But with the opening of the Getty Center, Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, the appointment of conductor Gustavo Dudamel to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the numerous theater world-premiere offerings and the emergence of the Los Angeles Opera, the "city of the future" is once again trying to establish itself as an internationally recognized cultural center. To explore these changes and discuss the challenges and issues facing arts institutions, The Times recently brought together the leaders of five major institutions in the city. Participating in the roundtable with Times editors and writers were: Deborah Borda, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn.; Placido Domingo, general director of Los Angeles Opera; Michael Govan, director and chief executive of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Michael Ritchie, artistic director of Center Theatre Group, which includes the Ahmanson Theatre, Mark Taper Forum and the Kirk Douglas Theatre; and James N. Wood, president and chief executive of the Getty Trust. Nearly all of them came to Los Angeles from the East Coast less than three years ago and discovered, to their surprise, a landscape ripe for development. Following is a partial transcript.

Question: Could each of you talk about what attracted you to Los Angeles?

Govan: In the visual arts and particularly in contemporary art, L.A. has emerged very recently as one of the major centers of art production -- and it's on the rise. There's momentum. The trend line here is up. Artists are fantastic indicators of cultural growth of great cities. In many cities, when artists come in, real estate does, or cultural institutions.

Having spent so much time in New York [most recently as head of the Dia Art Foundation], with a more Euro-centric approach, you can palpably feel -- in Los Angeles -- this connection to Latin America and to Asia. You feel a balanced perspective of the world situation.

And finally, there's a lot to do here; it's in the process of being made, as a place, culturally. When I first got here we had one of these conversations, and people were standing up and saying, "Well, L.A. already is a cultural capital." And the fact is, it's not by some of the standards. I think that's what was attractive -- that its future was not certain but that its future was uncertain. So that thrill of the uncertainty was as much of it as anything.

Wood: Well, the appeal to me was very selfish: There was a chance for a new life, an unexpected life. After two years of retirement, I didn't think that L.A. was going to be my home. For both my wife and I, actually, it's the ideal place to be at this moment. I've had the good fortune to spend time in New York and in Chicago [after being president of the Chicago Art Institute], and if one is going to be an American patriot, as I consider myself, then you have to know the third layer of this school.

At Getty, I knew I would have to learn at a tremendous pace, and frankly, at my age, that's really exciting. And I have not been disappointed. It's an institution with all kinds of potential, a short track record -- a good one. Many mistakes, many successes. So how it relates to Los Angeles was an opportunity to sort of learn in overtime. And the other really appealing factor, beyond the artists and whatnot, was the people running the other visual arts institutions. I realize that's only one small piece of the cultural scene here, but they're all younger than me, they're all smarter than me, and it's a great community. So the odds of success are very good here.

Domingo: Los Angeles has been, for me, a constant in my life. Whatever happens, I always come back to Los Angeles. It's a city where everybody, everything is developing -- in the museums, in the Philharmonic, with the music, in the Ahmanson. Everything is growing. I thought the relationship with Hollywood was something that we could use -- and that we have been using -- to a great success.

The people are proud of the city. I think people are really helping. In many cases you see that many people give money in order to make a tax deduction; I don't see that as much here. They really love the company, they really demonstrate it by helping.

One of the great things about Los Angeles is that -- even though any time I'm here I have to work -- more than in any other place, I have the feeling always that I'm on vacation, don't ask me why. [Laughs.]

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