Arts programs won a last minute reprieve after the Los Angeles City Council voted March 26th to earmark funds for public art projects and continue city programs for the next two years.
But Tuesday, March 30th brought renewed anxiety for public artists as well as teachers and students of the creative and visuals arts.
The city Department of Cultural Affairs announced that it will slash 33 of its 70 positions in an effort to reduce the municipal budget. The layoffs are a precursor to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s February dictate to City Hall departments to eliminate 4,000 employee positions, as city officials continue to grapple with the burden of a $212 million deficit this year and a projected shortfall next year growing to $484 million.
One local artist feels the intrinsic benefits that a community loses without art are difficult for city bureaucrats to quantify.
“When you don’t have the esthetic qualities in your life that art brings, there’s a void there that is difficult to fill,” explained Emily Winters, a Venice muralist whose murals adorn buildings in the beachside community. “Art often expresses the mood, the attitude and the emotions of a community.”
In February, the council backed away from a proposal to cut $4 million in arts funding through the transit occupancy tax, which is a hotel surcharge to its guests. But now that Cultural Affairs will be laying off nearly half its staff, local arts centers and their staffs say they are bracing for more uncertainty over the next few months.
The mayor has asked the council to eliminate 4,000 city employee positions by July 1st, when city officials must approve a budget. The mayor’s chief financial anyalst, Miguel Santana, has recommended slashing arts programs and closing a number of arts centers throughout the city. Santana is also encouraging private nonprofit agencies to take over some of the arts programs.
James Hubbard, a consultant at Venice Arts, applauded the council for finding money to keep arts centers open that were targeted for closure.
“I think it’s great that they are finding ways not to eradicate these programs,” he said.
Hubbard, an award-winning photographer, thinks Santana’s idea of inviting more private interests to the table has some merit.
“I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “I think it’s worked out well for SPARC (Social and Public Art Resources Center, 30-plus-year Venice institution).”
At Inside Out Arts in Venice, there is concern that one of the non-profit’s signature programs might not have a venue this summer.
“We were slated to perform our ‘City at Peace’ musical this summer at the Barnsdall Gallery Theater in Hollywood, but because it might not be kept open due to the city’s budget cuts, we might be forced to look elsewhere,” Varina Bleil, executive director of Inside Out Arts, said in a recent interview.
Bleil, who was appointed to her position this year, says she and the nonprofit’s staff might be called upon to use their collective creativity if their students — many of whom are from economically deprived backgrounds — are unable to perform their musical at Barnsdall if it closes.
“We’ll have to really brainstorm and strategize to be able to find another venue,” she said.
The “City at Peace” initiative is a creative process of almost a year where students devise and perform an original musical about their lives and the obstacles and challenges they face, which includes their visions for their futures.
“It’s something that our kids really look forward to performing,” Bleil added.
Inside Out Arts is also involved in the Youth and Family Courtyard at the annual Abbot Kinney Festival.
In Venice, long seen as the hub of West Coast artistic expression for literary and visual artists, any loss of cultural expression is a loss for the community at large, says Mike Newhouse, president of the Venice Neighborhood Council.
“What I would like to see is Venice looked at citywide as an arts treasure,” Newhouse, a 15-year resident who is also a board member at Venice Arts, told The Argonaut. “Art is part of the lifeblood of our community, and to lose funding now would be very detrimental to the arts community.”
Newhouse’s council has picked up the slack in recent years for a variety of artistic and cultural endeavors. Through its allotment from the city, it has provided money for building beautification at SPARC and to Inside Out Arts for the Abbot Kinney Festival, among others.
Mar Vista has also been active in providing community grants for arts projects due to the challenges that the city government has endured in recent years and what some say is an abdication of its commitment to cultural endeavors.
Last year, the Mar Vista Community Council appropriated $1,000 to the Friends of Charnock Campaign to Save the Arts, a group of parents who organized to continue arts education programs at Charnock Elementary School in Mar Vista. But due to the uncertain status of the budgets of the neighborhood councils this year, the ability of local councils to provide financial assistance could be curbed somewhat for the foreseeable future.
Mar Vista, like other neighborhood councils, has tabled all funding motions until the municipal budget is approved and the City Council decides what the neighborhood councils’ allotments will be later this year. Currently, each advisory council receives $45,000 annually, down from $50,000 last year. There is a proposal to slice that figure in half, but neighborhood council leaders from around the city have vigorously opposed that proposition.
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl opposes any drastic changes to Cultural Affairs.
“I do not believe that is in the best interest of our great city to wipe out Cultural Affairs,” the councilman said. “Public art has a restorative and community value to it, and we should be doing all that we can to preserve the arts.”
Although she remains concerned about the uncertain status of arts funding, Bleil commended the City Council for finding money to keep some of the city’s arts centers open.
“I really applaud their efforts to find a way to keep these organizations and centers in service,” she said.
Olga Garay, the head of Cultural Affairs, did not return calls for comments.