The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's new role as conservator of the Watts Towers has brought an almost immediate payoff: a $500,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation, announced Wednesday, to help fund repair and preservation of the landmark folk-art masterpiece.
"We're thrilled," said Olga Garay, executive director of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, which manages the towers and recently struck a trial one-year agreement with LACMA for conservation and help with promoting the towers to prospective visitors and funders. Before the grant came through, only $150,000 in city funding had been budgeted for the towers this year.
The Irvine Foundation has averaged $20.4 million a year in arts grants since 2008, but it normally doesn't fund art conservation projects, its president, James Canales, said Wednesday. "The motivation for this grant is that we see Watts Towers as an important cultural icon for Los Angeles" — one that dovetails with the foundation's interest in community-building and helping "underserved" Californians.
Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant stonemason with little formal education, worked solo for 33 years ending in 1954 to plant the triple-spired, nearly 100-foot-tall creation next to his home on what's now a dead-end street. The city itself could not have secured the grant because the San Francisco-based Irvine Foundation, a leading funder of the arts, public policy and education for low-income youth throughout California, does not give money to government agencies. Although LACMA receives more than $20 million a year from Los Angeles County, and some of its buildings are county-owned, it is run by a private, nonprofit board.