The $400 million budget shortfall faced by the City of Los Angeles this year has sparked fears of cutbacks to many public programs, causing some to take action on their own to see that they carry on.

One such program that has expressed concern about a potential loss in funding from the city is the Venice Public Art Walls, formerly known as the Venice Graffiti Walls on Venice Beach. Representatives of In Creative Unity (ICU) Art, the curator of the walls, say that the Art Walls have relied on a combination of city and private funding to operate since a new curating program was implemented at the site in June last year.

But city funding was previously committed to the program through the start of this month and with the city’s challenging budget situation, a possible cut to the funding has threatened the program’s survival, says Stash Maleski, director and founder of ICU Art, an art production company that has been the walls’ curator since 2000. The program currently receives 50 percent of its funding from the city and 50 percent from ICU Art, he said.

“I think it’s a program that should be contributed to,” Maleski said of the need for city funding.

The art walls, which stand in the background of the Venice Beach Boardwalk near Windward Avenue, were originally part of the Venice Pavilion that was built in 1961 and torn down in 1999. Over the years the site became a place where graffiti artists marked their designs, and in 2000, the walls became a legal painting area with a curating program.

After residents’ concerns arose regarding graffiti vandalism occurring away from the walls in the community, ICU Art and city officials worked last year to implement a new curating program with new rules. The rules limit painting on the beach walls to daylight hours on weekends and holidays only and require artists to obtain a permit.

The pilot program has received about $30,000 from the city over the last year and will need to get at least that amount from sources other than ICU Art to staff supervisors over the next year, Maleski said. He noted that even if the city could commit to continuing the funding under the proposed $7 billion budget, the program still faces struggles with getting money.

ICU Art has decided to step up to the fight for funds by organizing a benefit art auction Tuesday, June 3rd, at the G2 Gallery in Venice.

“The goal was to raise funds to keep the walls open as long as we can,” Maleski said of the auction.

The auction featured over 40 artists who donated their artwork to help raise funds to support the Art Walls program. Most of the art pieces were to be sold during a silent auction, while a few higher quality works were sold during a live auction.

All funds raised at the event will go specifically to pay the on-site supervisors who issue the free permits and oversee the walls on weekends and holidays.

“The goal is to raise awareness too,” Maleski said prior to the event. “It gives the artists an opportunity to help fund this area.”

Maleski expressed confidence that ICU would be able to secure enough funding to continue the curating program for at least a couple of months. Jeanna Penn, an ICU staff member and coordinator of the Art Walls, said the funds raised should at least get the program through the summer, which will be a “crucial time” for the walls.

“I feel confident we’ll raise enough money to go through the summer,” Penn said.

ICU Art has taken other avenues to try to find additional funding for the program, including applying for community improvement funds from the Venice Neighborhood Council. The council’s Neighborhood Committee has recommended that ICU receive $2,400 in community improvement funds, money that Maleski said would be applied toward signage for the site.

The art wall curator has also applied for grants but those could take time to receive, he said.

The Neighborhood Council has addressed the importance of funding community graffiti programs by sending a letter to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, urging the city to “fully fund these efforts.”

“Over the past year Ö we have seen a great reduction in the amount and frequency of graffiti in Venice neighborhoods,” states a letter from the Neighborhood Council Graffiti Committee. “And not surprising, while graffiti and tagging has been reduced, feelings of security and community pride have dramatically risen.”

Rosendahl noted in a letter to 11th District residents that the city was able to secure funding for graffiti removal services in the district. The councilman’s chief of staff, Mike Bonin, said while he is confident the Art Walls will see a combination of private and city funding this year, he is pleased to see ICU Art pursuing private sources.

“I’m really glad to see ICU transitioning to private fund raising for the operation of the Venice Art Walls,” Bonin said. “The ultimate goal for the next year is that (the program) will be entirely privately funded.”

Venice residents who have been active with graffiti issues say they have noticed a major improvement in the reduction of graffiti vandalism in the community since the permit program was put in place last year. Neighborhood Council Graffiti Committee chair Rand Denny said parts of the neighborhood looked like a “war zone” before the program but the incidents of “tagging” have dropped about 60 percent.

“It’s had a huge effect, but it’s only worked when all of the components have worked,” said Denny, referring to ICU’s oversight and the enforcement by LAPD.

Maleski was also quick to point out the improvements the permit program has made, saying the quality of the graffiti pieces at the site has risen because the artists dedicate more time to their work that can be displayed longer.

“By far, the quality has improved,” Penn added. “The older, more accomplished artists are now willing to come out when they weren’t before.

“It’s bringing life back to the area.”

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