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L.A. moving to get $7.5 million in public art funds off starting block

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Los Angeles officials are starting to get serious about freeing up $7.5 million or more in city government funds that are earmarked for visual art, performances or other cultural events, but have been wrapped tightly for years in legal red tape.

The unspent funds were rendered all but useless in 2007 when then-City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo ruled that the fees developers are required to pay to fund public art had to be spent within a one-block radius of the construction project that generated the fees.

Since it doesn't make sense to install artworks or put on cultural events in every block where a building has been newly built or renovated — in a warehouse district or industrial corridor, for example — the city's Department of Cultural Affairs has sat on the money while hoping to get the 2007 ruling changed. 

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City Controller Ron Galperin recently pushed the effort forward, issuing an audit report on the public art program that quantified the lack of spending and recommended relaxing the one-block-radius requirement.

In compiling the report, the auditors said, they consulted with the staff of current City Attorney Mike Feuer, who saw "more flexibility" than what the 2007 ruling has allowed.

The City Council also has been on the case, albeit moving slowly. Between last May and November, it considered and passed a motion calling on the city attorney and a bevy of departments involved in overseeing construction projects to look into a possible overhaul of the city's public art ordinance.

The council asked not just for consideration of the geographical jam, but also requested a report on whether it would make sense to increase the fees developers are required to pay.

The separate controller's audit report said that in "the vast majority" of cases, developers pay 1% of a project's design and construction cost — for example, a $200,000 art fee for a $20-million project. 

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But they're entitled to try to lower the fees by applying a formula that goes by a building's size and type, rather than its cost. That scale ranges from 39 cents per square foot in arts fees for warehouses, to $1.57 per square foot for office buildings.

The City Controller's audit did not fault the Cultural Affairs Department for failing to spend the $7.5 million in geographically frozen fees — an amount that approaches the department's $9 million annual budget —from 373 different development projects.

But it noted that the department may have hurt its own cause by skipping required reports to the City Council that would have shown that public art funds were languishing unspent.

"Formally submitting the required quarterly and annual reports of activities could have resulted in the city taking action to address this issue," the audit said.

Instead, the report said, the problem appeared on the City Council's radar last May when the unspent public art money became an issue during a discussion of the Cultural Affairs Department's budget — which is now 38.4% lower than in 2004, adjusting for inflation. 

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Over the last 26 years, the developer fees have generated $92.6 million, including $26 million in public money from the city charging itself fees to provide art for government-funded construction sites. When it's spent, the money directly benefits visual artists and performers contracted to create the art, and, presumably, citizens who get to experience it.

The public art piece that got perhaps the most attention in recent years was Peter Shelton's $500,000 sculptural ensemble, "sixbeaststwomonkeys," installed along the sidewalk outside the new LAPD headquarters on Spring Street in 2009.

Like many recent works of public art in L.A., Shelton's sculpture lacks an identifying plaque. Budget cuts have left the Cultural Affairs Department unable to afford them, given its other priorities.

Developers can opt to design and oversee the art projects they're funding, subject to the Cultural Affairs Department's approval. The audit found that those kinds of projects went forward without major delays, although it recommended some tightening of oversight.

The audit said the city could do more to make certain that developers meet their deadlines for installing art, and to ensure that the money they're obligated to spend goes for creative work by a commissioned artist (as the rules require), rather than merely to enhance features designed by the project's architect. 

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In many cases developers decide to just fork over the money and let the Cultural Affairs Department hire artists or plan performances and events to satisfy the public art requirement. The audit said that until the 2007 legal ruling put it in a geographical straitjacket, the department had spent the fees in the City Council districts where they were generated.

Auditors reported that the 2007 city attorney's ruling was based on language in L.A.'s public art fee ordinance that says the fruits of the developers' payments must be "available to the development project and its future employees." But checking with five other California cities, auditors said they found their public art spending was not bound by such a "narrow geographic radius" as the one-block limit.

The audit's release coincided with a recent "Arts Day L.A." at City Hall, in which the advocacy group Arts for L.A. brought about 400 people to the City Council meeting and for smaller gatherings with each of the 15 council members to urge improvements in the city's approach to the arts.

Danielle Brazell, Arts for L.A.'s executive director, said that along with pushing for specific actions, the idea was to "change the conversation" about arts and culture at City Hall, so that council members and other officials recognize "the value of arts and culture in our daily lives in Los Angeles."

In his administration's first budget proposal issued this week, Mayor Eric Garcetti called for a 5.5% increase in the Department of Cultural Affairs' core operating budget, to $9.4 million. The main add-ons would be a new $300,000 summer jobs program, to be launched next year, that would give L.A. youth experiences working behind the scenes in various arts settings, and $113,674 for part-time "as needed" staffing for a variety of tasks. The budget for arts grants, including the cost of administering them, would remain virtually unchanged at just over $3 million.

mike.boehm@latimes.com 

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