City Hall should boost public art locally without overreaching

L.A. takes steps to fix art-funding program, but it should be careful not to overreach

The city of Los Angeles decided more than two decades ago that commercial development takes a toll on the visual landscape of the city. To mitigate that, the city began charging developers an Arts Development Fee — 1% of the value of their construction project or a per-square-foot fee, whichever was lower. In the years since then, millions of dollars have been put into a fund for public art that has financed murals, sculptures, and other projects.

But in 2007, the city attorney concluded that the art must be placed within one block of the development that financed it, to satisfy a state law requiring a “reasonable relationship” between the project paying the fee and the art. An audit earlier this year found that officials at the Department of Cultural Affairs were so hamstrung by that restriction that millions of dollars in the fund were going unspent. More than $1 million was in danger of “expiring” and being returned to developers.

On Wednesday, the City Council took steps to fix the problem, passing new guidelines — with the legal blessing of a new city attorney — that lifted the one-block restriction and also allowed fees from more than one development to be combined to finance a bigger, better arts project. The guidelines also allow the fund to pay for arts performances, art classes and other cultural services in addition to traditional works of art.

It's good that the city is fixing this valuable but dysfunctional program. And it is true that the one-block restriction was too onerous. The audit looked at other local cities with arts development fees and none of them has such a restriction.

But the city should be careful. It argues that development anywhere in L.A. affects the city as a whole, and therefore that a new art project anywhere will serve as mitigation. But that's a bit glib. In practice, the city should work hard to keep the art funded by the program in the neighborhood of the development that paid for it. When the city combines fees from several projects, it should try to do so within a neighborhood or City Council district.

The city has said that City Council members will be consulted in decisions about where the new art should be located. Fine, but it's important that the final artistic decisions be made not by politicians but by the panel of experts appointed by the Department of Cultural Affairs.

And the new flexibility the city has to pay for festivals, performances and art classes from the fund should be used sparingly. While such programs are valuable, they're temporal. Public art remains for decades, mitigating the physical density and other negative effects of a commercial project.

These are all challenging issues for the city — but, hopefully, freed of unnecessary restrictions, officials will be creative when it comes to choosing and placing art in the city.

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