In the end, the power of art and the spoken word triumphed.
Beyond Baroque, a bastion of cultural and literary arts that has long embodied the creative and artistic spirit of Venice past and present is safe for the foreseeable future.
The renowned arts center, which has provided a showcase for poets and writers for four decades, was in jeopardy of losing its lease on the city-owned building, located in the former Venice City Hall at 681 N. Venice Blvd. But due to City Councilman Bill Rosendahl’s intervention, the Los Angeles City Council voted 11-0 on Friday, February 29th, to extend Beyond Baroque Foundation’s lease for another 25 years at one dollar a year.
The news that the iconic artistic haven was in danger of losing its lease and potentially being forced out of Venice generated a groundswell of support from members of the Los Angeles arts scene, which translated into the necessary political backing that was essential in ensuring that Beyond Baroque will remain in the neighborhood where it was created, 40 years ago this summer.
“We’ve been working on getting the lease for the building for a number of years now,” Fred Dewey, the executive director of Beyond Baroque, told The Argonaut in an interview at the foundation the day after the council’s vote. “As we started to get closer and closer to the expiration of the lease, I felt that the political process needed a little infusion from the public.”
Representatives at the creative arts venue began to inform its supporters and the public across Los Angeles about its plight with the lease, which brought about an incredible outpouring of support, said Dewey.
“This really stirred up a lot of anxiety, because Beyond Baroque is one of the few cultural, literary and especially poetry centers like this in the United States,” Dewey noted. “To the best of my knowledge, there are virtually no centers of this kind that are so dedicated to poetry that are independent and not connected to a university.”
Rumors about Beyond Baroque’s future date back to last summer, when there was talk that the city might not renew its lease. Dewey, who has been at the helm of the foundation since 1996, had been pressing for a long-term lease for the building but did not receive anything concrete from downtown officials.
“It’s very important that people feel that there is a building for poetry and I think that’s where part of the anxiety came from,” said the arts center’s director.
Once the lease agreement had been secured, a collective sigh of relief enveloped the literary community, many of whom view this venerable building as their personal connection to a unique form of artistic expression.
Jawanza Dumisani, who participated in a poetry event at Beyond Baroque on March 1st, was visibly excited when he heard the news that Beyond Baroque had secured a long-term agreement for its current building.
“I’m very, very pleased that Beyond Baroque will still be here,” said Dumisani, the literary director of the World Stage, an artistic group based in Leimert Park in the Crenshaw District. “Apparently, the people in City Hall had no idea what this place means not only to Los Angeles, but to the world.”
Rosendahl also recognized the importance that the arts center holds not only locally but also around the nation.
“[Beyond Baroque] is a great treasure not only to Venice, but to the city and the region,” said Rosendahl, who lived in Venice in the 1970s. “It is truly representative of the creative vibe that is such a part of Venice.”
Dewey discussed the pressure that other nonprofit organizations like Beyond Baroque may be feeling due to a number of factors, including more challenging financial times for city governments that are facing large budget shortfalls.
“I think that everyone feels quite besieged now, because other public nonprofits are in tenuous situations,” he said. “The legal structure and political structure are not necessarily supportive because they have their own problems and are worried about things like funding education and healthcare.
“There’s not enough money, and there’s a real problem with priorities, I think, because places like Beyond Baroque are as crucial as a health clinic or a library. We keep the language alive, we keep infusing it with new voices and we expose new voices to the experienced masters of the medium.”
Nick Velasquez, a spokesman for City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, said that his office had been the subject of misinformation regarding the lease the city has with Beyond Baroque. There were allegations that the city attorney was against the renewal of the lease and had lobbied against it, which Velasquez dismissed as being untrue.
“It’s the council’s prerogative to renew a lease,” he explained. “Our role is to approve a lease in accordance with the law and city policy, but we do not take a position on them.”
Rosendahl asked for Beyond Baroque’s lease to be put on the council’s February 29th calendar, as the lease agreement was due to expire March 1st, the following day. The vote came near the end of the council meeting, and Rosendahl had to make certain that there were at least ten of his colleagues present in order to ensure a quorum.
“I was worried,” the councilman admitted. “There were issues about nonprofits paying only a dollar a year for buildings, so there was some concern.
“It’s very fortunate that there were 11 of us who were still around. It really did go down to the wire.”
“Bill fought very hard for us,” said Dewey. “He recognized that this was good for Venice.”
Dewey mentioned that the distress for many in the artistic community was also heightened. “I think that people were very anxious that one of the last bastions of this way of thinking was going to be pulled under by the political process,” he said.
Dewey feels that there are parallels to what another nonprofit neighborhood organization, Venice Unchained, is seeking to do with prohibiting large retail stores in the community and his organization’s fight to maintain a cultural unique icon in Venice.
“I think that there is a special ethos that is still alive in Venice,” he asserted. “Part of that, I think, is citizen responsibility and citizen engagement, and caring about the community that you’re a part of.
“It has that special quality that reflects the history of the neighborhood and the people in the neighborhood, and Beyond Baroque itself is an outgrowth of a tradition of arts and poetry, and we, like [Venice Unchained], are trying to protect something that is unique to Venice.”
“It’s an icon in the community, and they’re in a historical building,” stated Jill Prestup, president of the board of directors of the Venice Historical Society. “We are thrilled that they were able to get their lease extended.”
The Old Venice City Hall, as some call it, was built nearly a hundred years ago, when Venice was a separate incorporated city.
After Venice became part of the City of Los Angeles in the mid-1920s, the former Venice City Hall was used for various Los Angeles city offices through the years, but by the late 1970s all city offices in the building had been moved out and the building was empty and deteriorating.
Beyond Baroque has occupied the building since May 1979, when the organization’s founder and then-president, George Drury Smith, obtained the first lease of the building from the city.
At the March 1st poetry reading, the mood at Beyond Baroque was understandably upbeat. For Kelly Kimble, the knowledge that the well-known artistic locale was no longer in danger of losing its lease meant that she still has a place where creative expression is welcomed, encouraged and nurtured.
“I utilize the free workshops here, and there’s a great community of artists here who share a vision,” said Kimble, a writer and poet who volunteered at the March 1st poetry reading. “That is why I come here, and that’s why I love to give back, by volunteering and helping out at different events.”
“We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with this institution and support it in every regard,” added Dumisani.
Dewey credited Beyond Baroque’s steering committee, Suzanne Thompson, with Linda Lucks, Rick Tuttle and board members Amelie Frank, Brooks Roddan, and Richard Modiano for their hard work in battling to save the arts center.
As concerned as he was about the lease, Dewey said that he was always confident that Beyond Baroque, in the end, would prevail.
“We couldn’t afford to lose,” he concluded.