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Garcetti picks Danielle Brazell to lead L.A.'s culture department

Mayor Garcetti taps veteran L.A. arts advocate Danielle Brazell to head city's Department of Cultural Affairs

Danielle Brazell, whose job over the past eight years has included regularly prodding City Hall to spend more money and pay more attention to L.A.’s nonprofit arts scene, has been nominated by Mayor Eric Garcetti to take charge of the Department of Cultural Affairs, the agency that receives the relatively limited financial support the city does allocate.

Brazell has been executive director of the Arts for L.A. advocacy group since 2006. As the department’s general manager, she would preside over a staff of 38 full-time and 80 part-time employees.

With a current core budget of about $9 million from local taxes, the department oversees the city’s grants to artists, arts groups and cultural festivals, and operates such landmark sites as the Watts Towers, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House and the neighboring Municipal Art Gallery.

It also oversees the commissions of public artworks funded by real estate development fees and an array of city-owned arts centers and theaters, including the downtown Los Angeles Theatre Center, whose operations are often contracted to nonprofit operators. The budgeted salary for the general manager is $208,737.

If the City Council confirms her, Brazell would become the fifth general manager the Department of Cultural Affairs has had since it was created in the 1980s, and the first to have grown up and pursued her entire arts career in L.A.

“Danielle has the experience and passion to lead the department into a new era that showcases our talent, inspires our youth, and supports our creative economy,” Garcetti said in a written statement Thursday announcing Brazell’s nomination. “Arts shouldn’t be an afterthought [but] a core part of our city government, and Danielle is uniquely qualified to make sure arts and culture touches every Angeleno’s life.”

“I’m thrilled to catalyze this vision, ” Brazell said in the statement. 

Garcetti’s first budget proposal as mayor calls for allocating $9.5 million from tax coffers for salaries, grants and supplies in the coming 2014-15 fiscal year, up 6.3% from current levels.

Brazell said in an interview that she has been impressed by Garcetti’s emphasis on having all city departments take into account how arts and creativity can tie in with their work.

As head of Arts for L.A., Brazell has sometimes helped to mobilize arts backers against government proposals that threatened arts funding. In 2010, when City Hall was facing a large post-recession budget deficit, the group helped parry a series of initiatives that would have threatened arts funding or privatized operations at a number of city-run venues.

In one instance, Garcetti, then the City Council president, had made a motion along with five other council members that would have diverted at least some of the proceeds from the Department of Cultural Affairs’ main funding pipeline, a guaranteed share of the city’s hotel tax receipts that’s currently about 6%. Officials quickly backed off after Brazell and Arts for L.A. orchestrated an email campaign and a large turnout at a City Council meeting on the proposal.

One of her priorities as an arts advocate has been changing the current interpretation of how the city's hotel taxes for the arts should be allocated; she has favored devoting the entire amount to grants instead of splitting the money between grants and administrative expenses.

Brazell said Thursday that better funding will depend on being able to make the case to the mayor and City Council that the Department of Cultural Affairs is “being efficient and transparent and effective.”

She said that tools she has mastered as “an outside voice” advocating for the arts can still apply as the head of a city department. They include determining how the arts could help earn their keep by fostering tourism, enhancing creative skills that are important in the job market, and engaging public school students in ways that can keep them in school and improve their overall academic performance.

Arts for L.A. claims 160 member organizations and monitors cultural policies of both the city and county government.

Brazell, 47, was born in Paris, Ill., but moved to Reseda with her parents when she was 6 months old. She said she grew up in a tough apartment complex “plagued with drugs and violence … it was access to the arts that gave me an opportunity to express myself and realize that I had a greater potential.”

She said with a laugh that, although she completed her senior year at Grover Cleveland High School, she was short a few credits that she never made up. She thus would become a rare city department head who lacks a high school diploma. But she said she knows from personal experience how important education is: “I had a drama teacher who kept me in school, and she saved my life.”

Brazell did eventually make it to Harvard, however, completing a non-degree program in public administration at its Kennedy School of Government.

After high school Brazell continued with acting and branched into performance art, also working as an arts teacher. She gravitated to Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, where one of her mentors was its artistic director and co-founder, the noted performance artist Tim Miller.

In 1999 Brazell succeeded him as artistic director, and served for five years. She then worked two years as director of special projects for the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, which included administrative responsibilities and overseeing a program that sends actors into classrooms to read for students.

Brazell’s years on the L.A. arts scene would give her a head start and a knowledge of the local arts landscape that no previous general manager of the Department of Cultural Affairs has enjoyed.

Olga Garay-English, who was appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and fired last year by Garcetti, had a national profile as head of performing arts grants for the East Coast-based Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.  Her predecessor, Margie Reese, an appointee of Richard Riordan, had headed the municipal arts agency in Dallas.

Adolfo Nodal, picked by Tom Bradley, was the only other Cultural Affairs head who came into the job with experience on the L.A. arts scene – five years of nonprofit arts administration after his arrival from Washington, D.C. Bradley also appointed the department’s first general manager, Fred Croton, who had been an arts manager in Connecticut and New York.

Arts for L.A. sprouted from an unsuccessful effort by Eli Broad to spur L.A.’s cultural tourism. In 2005, the Broad Foundation set up Arts + Culture L.A., a separate nonprofit whose goal was to secure grants to funnel into promoting L.A. as a cultural destination.  An effort to raise $8 million from government sources to market the city to arts-hungry tourists fell flat, but it set the stage for Arts for L.A.’s birth as an advocacy organization that did not require a large staff or budget.

Follow @boehmm of the LA Times for arts news and features

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