Villaraigosa wants to rescind arts grant cuts that stirred protests


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Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has backed away from his controversial plan to cut the city’s arts grants by $415,000 and give the money to four other cultural organizations he picked himself.

“We were overzealous,” Ben Ceja, deputy mayor for budget and finance, told the City Council committee that has been going through the mayor’s budget proposal with each department head, in preparation for making recommendations to the full council.


Ceja asked the budget and finance committee to restore the $415,000 to the Department of Cultural Affairs budget. While no action was taken, committee Chairman Bernard C. Parks said he was miffed that the transfer had been proposed in the first place. Restoring the money to the $2.7-million arts grants program would mean that 35 organizations already approved through the standard application process in which panels of experts review and score each proposal will not lose their grants; 271 others would avoid 7% to 15% cuts.

Ceja said in an interview that the change of heart came after Olga Garay, Villaraigosa’s appointee as executive director of the cultural affairs department, explained the longstanding process of competitive grants. It was “a key [factor] that made us reconsider this,” the deputy mayor said. “We didn’t want to harm the process.”

As Garay and several L.A. arts leaders told the council budget committee during the hearing Friday at City Hall, the peer-review process that L.A. uses for its grants follows what is nationally considered a “best practice” for government grant-making -- designed to make artistic and educational merit the only criteria, and avoid any appearance that political connections influence decisions.

Michael Alexander, head of the Grand Performances series in downtown L.A., told council members that if the city were to turn grants into earmarks, arts organizations would conclude they needed to be politically connected to get funded and would soon “be bombarding your offices” to make their pitches.
Villaraigosa wanted to spend $250,000 on Channel 36, a city-owned cable TV station; $75,000 for the El Grito annual Mexican independence celebration; and $45,000 each for the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival and the Pan African Film Festival.

Ceja, the deputy mayor, said the idea sprang from the mayor’s attempt to address a crisis-level deficit in the city’s general fund by pulling money out of other budget areas, such as the Department of Cultural Affairs, which gets most of its money from a share of hotel taxes. The uses would correspond to the department’s mission, and seemed appropriate until it became clear that the move would put the city at odds with standard grant-making procedures.

Ceja said the four organizations the mayor wanted to support all customarily have gotten annual city funding from other areas of the city budget, but his bid to reduce general fund spending had put them in jeopardy and he wanted to find a way to continue supporting them. The deputy mayor asked the council committee to try to find $415,000 elsewhere in the budget for the four; Parks said dryly that after the mayor’s budgetary flip-flop, “to throw this on us…I don’t think it is fair.”


Also unfunded in the mayor’s proposal was $150,000 needed for conserving the Watts Towers -- funding that could be vital to cementing a partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Getty Conservation Institute and California African American Museum that could bring unprecedented expertise in art preservation, education and marketing, plus donor connections, to bear on the chronically underfunded folk-art masterwork. But Garay said that by spending less on printing and using savings projected from the planned transfer of seven neighborhood arts venues to private operators, she has come up with the $150,000 for the towers and will move to cement a written agreement with the three museums establishing a Watts Towers “consortium.” She said a meeting would be held soon in Watts to get input from the community.

Still uncertain, Garay said, is whether a new proposed city policy ending rent-free leases for nonprofit groups could undermine the plan to privatize those seven venues. It calls for nonprofits to pay at least 50% of market rental rates and cover maintenance and utility costs. Parks, whose committee recently approved the plan, said it wouldn’t go into effect for at least a year and that each lease-holder’s individual situation would be reviewed before any rent changes went into effect.

A concerned Garay said after the hearing that potential nonprofit operators for the seven neighborhood arts centers and theaters the city wants to privatize are unlikely to sign contracts and leases if they don’t know what their rent and overhead costs would be.
Garay said she wants to provide $14,000 a year in city operating support to the prospective newcomers, continuing an existing policy. Meanwhile, the cultural affairs department has set aside $365,000 to keep six of the centers open through December while the process of finding operators goes forward (the seventh, the Vision Theatre, is closed for renovations). However, full-time directors who knew each facility and neighborhood well will be laid off after June 30, and part-time managers and instructors will take their places.

-- Mike Boehm


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Top photo: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, right, and Mexican consul general Ruben Beltran at City Hall in 2005, enjoying El Grito, the Mexican independence celebration that was among four earmarks Villaraigosa had proposed funding with arts grant money before withdrawing the controversial idea Friday.