L.A. Music Center and its lead fundraiser support financial audit

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has ordered a financial audit of the Music Center, the downtown performing arts center that has been forced to lay off employees in recent months amid financial difficulties.

The action follows reports in the Los Angeles Times that the Music Center has fallen short of its fundraising goals and is now cutting back on its music education programs for local students.

The Music Center staff also has come under fire for spending too much money on a 50th anniversary gala last December. The private nonprofit organization gets about $25 million a year from county taxpayers.

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"It is important that the Music Center's use of county funds be periodically reviewed for compliance with the … funding agreement" with the county, the board motion proposed by Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich said.

Antonovich's chief of staff, Kathryn Barger, said that The Times' reports helped spur his decision to push for an audit. She said it is prudent to look into the Music Center's finances so that it can "start with a clean slate" when Rachel Moore becomes its next president and chief executive in October.

Music Center spokeswoman Joan Cumming said the Music Center has no problem with the audit, which the supervisors voted for this week, directing the auditor-controller to report back within 60 days.

"An audit of this nature is fairly common, and of course we are ready to provide the county the information it needs," Cumming said.

The action was applauded by Carla Sands, who chairs the Blue Ribbon, a leading fundraising support group for the Music Center. Sands said Music Center officials were unable to give her a clear accounting of how money was spent for the 50th anniversary gala, and that a golden opportunity to raise money was squandered by failing to secure corporate sponsors and individual donors.

The county audit "is a big step in the right direction," Sands said Thursday. "The first goal of all of us is that the Music Center be healthy, culturally and financially."

The Music Center's annual fundraising in recent years has been stagnant at about $10 million despite booming post-recession investment markets that have helped other cultural organizations land larger contributions.

As its facilities show signs of age, the Music Center has proposed two big-ticket capital projects: a long-deferred $350-million renovation of the 51-year-old Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and a $30-million makeover of the arts center's outdoor plaza.

Since they are county-owned facilities, the Music Center expects taxpayers to foot the bill for a substantial share of both projects.

The fact that Music Center leaders "are going to be looking to the county for help" is another reason to do the audit now, Barger said.

In December, the Board of Supervisors tabled the county chief executive office's recommendation that the county advance $10 million out of a projected $25 million for the plaza project.

Music Center leaders want to make the plaza a more efficient and less costly venue for performances and other public events. The proposal also calls for reducing the steep slope of the wide, fortress-like staircase that now cuts off the Music Center from Grand Avenue.

The $24.8 million in annual operating support from the county covers the Music Center's expenses as a landlord responsible for maintenance, security, ushers and utilities at its four venues: Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Ahmanson Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Any other programs the Music Center might want to present depend on its earning or raising the money on its own.

Most of the performances in those venues are produced by resident companies, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Opera and Center Theatre Group, which are financially separate from the Music Center organization.

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