Board members of Beyond Baroque, the venerable Venice nonprofit literary arts organization, rejoiced in 2008 after signing a 25-year lease for the city-owned building they share with L.A. Theatre Works.
“It has been a long, arduous struggle and it is now over, with a much sought-after and favorable conclusion for Beyond Baroque,” Fred Dewey, the group’s executive director, said in an interview with The Argonaut after the lease was signed.
Nearly 18 months later, a proposal by Los Angeles’ chief budget officer could alter the dynamics of the leases for some of the city’s most recognized non-profits.
The plan, which has not been presented to the full City Council, would suspend the current leases on buildings owned by the city and require the tenants to pay rent at 50 percent of the current market value.
The council’s budget and finance committee recently approved the plan, which has local non-profits worried about their long-term futures.
The Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), another longtime Venice-based arts institution, is in that category of concerned organizations. In a recent press release issued April 27th, the mural and visual arts non-profit issued a warning to its supporters regarding the city’s plan for some of its buildings.
“A proposal by the Los Angeles city administrator’s office would eliminate the $1 per-year leases for 116 nonprofit organizations (approximately 16 arts organizations) working in the interest of the public,” the release states. “The proposal will go before the full City Council sometime in the next two weeks.
“Should this policy be enacted, it will severely impact arts organizations, eliminate jobs and increase urban blight by potentially contributing to the number of derelict and/or abandoned buildings in the city.”
SPARC signed a 55-year lease in 2000.
“For 34 years, SPARC has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars for our building’s repair, paid its own utilities, paid for the maintenance and upkeep of the building and provided important community programming for the residents,” the release states.
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl said recently that the rental agreements for both Beyond Baroque and SPARC as of now are not in immediate danger.
“I talked to some of our staff at City Hall and I have been told that those leases are protected,” Rosendahl said. “I’m still holding strong that they will be enforceable.”
The councilman added that those that do not have a current lease might not be protected and given the budget woes with the city government, the plan to restructure the non-profits’ rental agreements is subject to change.
“It’s a possibility,” Rosendahl acknowledged. “I don’t think that will happen, but if they find themselves vulnerable, I promise that I will fight for them.”
Arts For L.A. Executive Director Danielle Brazell feels if the recommendation from Chief Administrative Officer Miguel Santana’s office becomes law, artistic groups will not be the only ones that suffer.
“This will not only hurt the arts non-profits, this is also bad for Los Angeles,” Brazell said.
Her group, an arts advocacy non-profit to which Beyond Baroque and SPARC belong, is encouraging those who value artistic expression to let city leaders know their feelings about the possibility of these organizations losing their base through its Web site at www.artsforla.org/.
“We want to mobilize a grassroots response for all of our members like SPARC and Beyond Baroque that have an investment in this issue,” Brazell said.
Inside Out Community Arts Executive Director Varina Bleil does not have to worry about losing the building that houses her arts center because United Methodist Church in Venice owns it.
“It’s a tough year for non-profits,” said Bleil, whose organization brings after-school arts programs to underserved middle school students. “I have a lot of empathy for the city, but I also understand what so many arts non-profits are going through.”
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who initially pushed for severe cutbacks to the Cultural Affairs Department and recommended taking away $415,000 from its budget to give to four hand-picked cultural organizations, backed away from that controversial plan April 30th after hearing from hundreds of arts supporters. While arts advocates celebrated that decision, Cultural Affairs Director Olga Garay expressed concern about the proposal to end rent-free leases for non-profits.
Renown Venice painter and sculptor Laddie John Dill thinks that Rosendahl, who has long supported local artistic endeavors, could be a stronger advocate for sculptors, muralists and poets.
“Rosendahl is supposed to be for artists, but in fact he’s a hypocrite,” Dill, whose exhibitions have been displayed in national and international museums, asserted. “I believe his real agenda is the gentrification of Venice.”
Brazell said there are immeasurable, intrinsic benefits that a community loses when an artistic void is created.
“You lose your self-expression and possibly the identity of your community,” she said. “We understand that the city is having very difficult budget issues, but the policy that the CAO is proposing can cause irreparable harm to the Los Angeles artistic community.”
Representatives from SPARC and Beyond Baroque did not return calls for comment.
Rosendahl said the council could consider the proposal within the next week or perhaps next month.
“By (June) there will be more clarity,” he said. “But I want to assure my constituents again that I appreciate music, murals and all manner of artistic expression, and I will fight to protect those leases that have already been signed.”
Brazell said Los Angeles, long a haven for nonconformist, avant-garde and progressive artistic expression is moving towards making life much more difficult for poets, musicians and other artists.
“It’s becoming harder and harder for artists who don’t operate in the commercial sector,” she said. “We’re seeing fewer grants per capital than many cities on the West Coast.
“We are deeply invested in the vitality of Los Angeles and we know that art is a vital component to thriving neighborhoods.”
Dill said it would be a shame if Beyond Baroque were to leave Venice.
“It’s a landmark,” he said. “Artists always survive, but it wouldn’t be the same.”
Calls to Villaraigosa’s office were not returned as The Argonaut went to press.