To Stash Maleski, it always seems like one of the first areas to suffer during a budget crisis is the creative arts.
“We don’t seem to get the same priorities as other city departments,” lamented Maleski, the director of In Creativity Unity (ICU) Art, an art company that specializes in mural and live painting events.
Maleski and other arts organizations are watching the ongoing budget political theater that is being played out in the corridors of Los Angeles City Hall, as city leaders continue to search for alternative methods other than decimating certain municipal departments through funding cuts or layoffs as they try to close a $212 million budget deficit.
The Cultural Affairs Department, where the funding for many of the city’s artistic endeavors is provided, is one of the municipal agencies that some council members had targeted for possible restructuring.
The City Council postponed taking any budget-related action at its February 3rd meeting following an outpouring of public support to save art-related funding. The council backed away from a proposal to cut $4 million in arts funding through the transit occupancy tax, a hotel surcharge, but Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made his desire clear for trimming city positions at a press conference the following day.
“Every budget is a balancing act,” Villaraigosa said. “We
have been living beyond our means and now we have difficult choices to make. Each day we fail to act we lose an estimated $300,000. We must protect our fiscal health and economic future.”
The mayor directed the city’s Personnel Department to eliminate 1,000 general fund positions and begin calculating layoffs, displacement seniority, and/or transfers of employees to fill these targeted positions.
The following day, Chief Deputy City Attorney Bill Carter wrote a memo to the mayor and City Hall department heads saying that Villaraigosa does not possess the authority under the city charter to order layoffs.
James Hubbard, a consultant at Venice Arts, says one way for the public to demonstrate that arts are important and should not face the budget axe is to express that sentiment to city politicians directly.
“We’ve begun an Internet campaign to save arts funding, and if we need to, there will also be public demonstrations,” said Hubbard, a well-known photographer. “When politicians cut arts funding, it’s a direct assault on children.”
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, an avid fan of murals and community art, said that he will fight as hard as necessary to keep what little funding the city does allot for the arts.
“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.”
Hubbard said any significant cutbacks in personnel that are being proposed at Cultural Affairs will have a domino effect on his organization and others.
“(Severe cuts) will result in hampering our ability to have programs that are beneficial for children,” he said.
Maleski said the Venice Public Art Walls near the boardwalk, a program which has seen its funding steadily decline over the last two years, is a victim of the city’s budget crisis. His organization pays the employees who staff the mural program, but as of May, the mural company will no longer be able to afford them, he noted.
“It’s sad and it’s ridiculous,” Maleski lamented. “(The city) is shutting something down that is necessary.”
Mike Newhouse, president of the Venice Neighborhood Council who is also a board member of Venice Arts, would like to see city officials consider how important the arts are to a community like his during budget deliberations.
“What I would like to see is Venice looked at citywide as an arts treasure,” said Newhouse, whose local council funds several community arts programs each year. “Art is part of the lifeblood of our community, and to lose funding now would be very detrimental to the arts community.”
According to medical professionals, some forms of art can have beneficial effects on individuals diagnosed with neurodevelopmental disorders, like autism. Pierre Dumas, who has had autism his entire life and is unable to communicate verbally, has shown great improvement in the way that he interacts with others since he discovered the art walls in Venice, says his sister, Yvette Beaird.
“He has changed so much,” Beaird, a former Westchester resident, said in an interview with The Argonaut last year. “He can prepare sandwiches for himself and do certain chores, which we thought would probably never happen.”
Dr. Paula Pompa-Craven, a psychologist who is familiar with Dumas’ case, says the interaction with other muralists at the art walls have greatly improved his demeanor.
“Being part of a community can be very therapeutic,” the doctor said. “Pierre has grown by leaps and bounds. His eye contact, an important sign for someone with autism, has increased dramatically, and part of that is due to his family support and the opportunity to express himself artistically.”
Reductions in the Cultural Affairs staff will not bode well for the future of murals in Los Angeles, once known as “the mural capital of the world,” said Maleski.
“It’s very unlikely that the issue of murals will be resolved any time soon now,” he predicted.
Planning Department representatives have stated that they are waiting until a series of lawsuits over the city’s billboard ordinance is settled before reviewing the existing policies governing murals. Currently, these works of art can be painted in public spaces but not on private property.
That policy has caused consternation among some Del Rey residents. A mural project to paint over a wall covered in graffiti that would have been paid for by a Del Rey property owner is on hold due to the fact that the city has yet to craft a mural policy for public art.
Due to pending litigation with billboard companies and the city government’s policy of equating signs with murals, the wall of a property owned by Peter Van Weelden remains covered in graffiti and is an ongoing eyesore to the community, said Mark Redick, president of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council.
“We saw this as a way to give the community an aesthetic benefit and eliminate blight at the same time,” Redick explained.
Hubbard said that he was dismayed that city politicians, especially those who profess to espouse a love for the arts, do not do enough to save crucial programs during budget time. He castigated both liberal and conservative officeholders, who he says rarely show courage when arts are on the line.
“A lot of them talk a good game about culture and art,” he said. “But there’s not a ray of light that passes through either group when it’s time to cut the arts.”
The council will consider cutting positions and funding to Cultural Affairs, along with other city departments, next month.
Olga Garay, who heads Cultural Affairs, did not return phone calls for comment.