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CULTURE | LANDING IN L.A.

The art of opening doors

As the city's new Cultural Affairs chief, Olga Garay sees nothing but sprawling opportunity in L.A.

May 18, 2008|Charles Koppelman | Special to The Times

This is part of a series of occasional articles observing newly arrived cultural figures as they seek to get the lay of the land in Southern California.

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LATE IN the afternoon you might imagine that Olga Garay, the executive director of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, is primping for an L.A. Phil concert at Disney Hall, an art opening on Wilshire Boulevard or a premiere at the Ahmanson. Instead, she clutches the steering wheel and fights surface street traffic getting to San Pedro for a 6 p.m. appointment.

She's on her way for a tour of a shut-down former firehouse where her department plans to invest a little money. ("Just to warn you," the note on her schedule says, "it's pretty unappealing inside.") This is Garay's method for getting to know the complex shape of L.A. It's grass-roots, do-it-yourself and hands-on. Of course, having recently arrived from New York, where she was based for nearly 10 years, she needs a little help.

"On my first 10 days working here last year, I got so lost I was practically crying," she says, turning down the jazz station she normally listens to. Typically, this is a story she tells on herself, not the least embarrassed. "I got one of those GPS things and I told it where I wanted to go. But nothing happened!"

She continues, straight-faced. "So I called the emergency GPS number and spoke to this guy," who couldn't believe she was talking to the device. She throws back her head and cackles: "I'm like a mental midget!"

While Garay may need briefing on new technology, she's a quick study when it comes to what is happening in the world of arts and culture. The self-deprecation masks her thrill at the challenge of putting the city of Los Angeles front and center in supporting, promoting and underwriting the arts. Being outgoing and gregarious, she has the temperament for a job that requires frequent public meetings and encounters with new acquaintances.

The Performing Arts Firehouse in San Pedro is emblematic of Garay's priorities -- supporting disparate grass-roots arts communities, being strategic with limited and shrinking funds and enabling greater access and usage of the city's various facilities.

"I'm trying to be responsive on the ground to what the community and the artists are telling us and what the City Council members are saying," she said earlier over lunch in Venice when she had reverse sticker shock ("I thought I was going to get a little salad. This would cost $20 in Manhattan!").

L.A.'s port community, with its mix of Croatians, Italians, Latinos and African Americans, is the kind of place where Garay, 55, of Cuban descent, is comfortable operating. Wearing a tan leather skirt with matching jacket, she gingerly steps through the moldy rooms, escorted by Lee Sweet, a Cultural Affairs staffer. By spending $24,000 for repairs, kids can once again work with Double G, who teaches symphonic hip-hop with a 70-piece group. Or they can play percussion, keyboards, guitar and violin with instructors from Music LA. The firehouse will return as a safe haven for doing homework.

"Can we do wireless?" Garay asks. Perhaps she knows more about the computer world than she lets on.

Expanding the community

Officially, the goal of the Department of Cultural Affairs, formerly under the direction of Margie Reese, is to generate and support high-quality arts and cultural experiences. "Our challenge," Garay says on the department's website, "is to be a catalyst for the delivery of art, culture, and heritage to every neighborhood in the City." With an annual budget of $28.1 million and a full-time staff of 74, DCA supports 16 neighborhood arts centers, five theaters, three historic sites and several galleries from Wilmington to Sun Valley. Continuing to spread its funds in small but strategic ways, as she intends, may put Garay at odds with others such as philanthropist Eli Broad. She says he told her to use the department's $3 million in annual grants to simply help fund the city's top institutions.

But the grass roots is where Garay is coming from and one reason Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hired her a year ago. In the mid-1980s she worked at the Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs Council in Florida, eventually becoming assistant director of the agency. The seeds she helped plant there are bearing lush fruit. At the time, there were about 100 nonprofit arts organizations in the Miami area. Now, in part spurred by government grants, the arts scene there is booming with about 1,000 arts groups, major new venues and spreading boho neighborhoods.

Before entering the culture field, Garay ran a literacy project in Florida for migrant farmworkers. She would send a street band into the migrant camps to play for the workers, and later, having their attention, start a reading program. "We used the arts as a means of getting trust built from the community."

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