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Los Angeles municipal arts begin to feel budget crisis' effects

Department of Cultural Affairs must figure out how to staff two centers when layoffs take hold. Privatization of facilities is considered.

March 24, 2010|By Mike Boehm
  • Olga Garay, executive director of the Department of Cultural Affairs
Olga Garay, executive director of the Department of Cultural Affairs (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

The slashing of Los Angeles' municipal arts offerings is underway, with seven layoffs to take effect April 1 and eight more expected when the fiscal year ends June 30, as City Hall tries to cope with a budget crisis.

Olga Garay, executive director of the Department of Cultural Affairs, said Monday that she had to figure out how the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro and the William Grant Still Arts Center in West Adams will be staffed after the April 1 layoffs of their directors.

And the City Council may get an earful at its meeting Wednesday from supporters of four neighborhood arts centers -- two in Barnsdall Park in Hollywood, two next to the Watts Towers -- that are among nine facilities City Hall wants to unload on private nonprofit operators, in hopes of cutting jobs.

"This is not a decision you make in haste, without any real plan or vetting," said Janine Watkins, a Watts community activist concerned for the future of the new Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center and the adjacent Watts Towers Arts Center, which the city has run since the 1970s.

Garay said about 80 supporters of the Watts and Barnsdall centers expressed concerns about privatization Monday during a meeting of the council committee on arts, parks, health and aging. The bidding process to find new operators hasn't begun yet, but for the kinds of grass-roots groups envisioned as partners in the city-owned centers, she said, "it's a tall order" to fund their staffing and overhead. Miguel Santana, L.A.'s chief administrative officer, has suggested closing or selling centers that find no takers.

Additional layoffs and early retirements loom over a department that expects staffing to fall from 63 last summer to 36 by July 1. The $9.6-million Cultural Affairs budget already had been trimmed by $700,000 through furloughs and unfilled openings. The small department is being asked to shoulder a share of a deficit projected to run as high as $600 million next year.

Los Angeles is unusual among major cities in operating a large, far-flung network of community arts centers. It already has private operating partners at 10 of the 25 facilities, including the downtown Los Angeles Theatre Center, Mid-City's Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, Lankershim Arts Center in North Hollywood and McGroarty Arts Center in Tujunga.

Before City Hall began seeking drastic staffing cuts, Garay had submitted a budget request for 2010-11 that envisioned finding private partners for three more centers: the Barnsdall Art Center and the Junior Arts Center, which serve adults and children, and the William Grant Still Arts Center.

Looking for additional savings through layoffs, Santana added the Warner Grand, the Madrid Theatre in Canoga Park, the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre and the currently closed Vision Theatre in Leimert Park to the list. At the request of Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents Watts, the Watts arts centers were added.

There could be devils in the details of privatization, even for facilities that have enthusiastic potential takers. One is the Grand Vision Foundation, which hopes to operate the Warner Grand. Liz Schindler-Johnson, its executive director, said the group led the 1996 effort to save the elaborate, 1931 Art Deco house from being gutted and made into a swap meet site, and has continued to raise money for it.

Schindler-Johnson is concerned that the bid process for operators could take too long, forcing the Warner Grand to go dark on July 1 and blunting the momentum that has been built toward making it a magnet for cultural activity and neighborhood revitalization. "There are numerous events booked, and numerous presenters relying on the Warner Grand," she said.

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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