NEA-style community-building via arts has lost ground in state

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Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, came to Watts and neighboring Willowbrook on Thursday for walking tours and briefings on how $720,000 in grants funded or coordinated by the NEA is being spent.

The money was generated by Our Town and ArtPlace, two programs begun under Landesman that aim to use the arts as a tool for neighborhood improvement and fostering economic growth.

But a major new California state policy works at cross-purposes to what Landesman is trying to accomplish on a federal level. From the late 1960s on, municipal redevelopment agencies in the state often funded arts and cultural projects on the same theory that guides Our Town and ArtPlace -- that in addition to their aesthetic and educational value, arts attractions foster tourism, an engaged and active citizenry, and economic growth.

Those efforts ended on Feb. 1, when California’s redevelopment agencies, which were created to fight urban blight and promote economic activity, ceased to exist. Driven by the budget crises lingering over Sacramento and municipalities, and questioning the efficacy of redevelopment spending, Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature abolished the agencies so that billions of dollars in property taxes they’d controlled could be diverted to other government purposes.


More than $350 million in arts projects have been funded by redevelopment agencies in Los Angeles County over the past 45 years, including construction of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Grand Avenue headquarters ($23 million) and the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts ($60 million).

The historic, 1904-vintage Watts train station that Landesman visited -- an Our Town grant will help install a visitor center there -- has been rehabbed since the late 1980s with $962,000 in redevelopment agency money. Landesman also visited the Watts Towers, which anchor a 10-acre park where the Los Angeles redevelopment agency invested more than $4 million over the years for landscaping, bicycle paths and a concrete amphitheater next to the towers (many towers advocates regard the amphitheater as an uninviting, seldom-used mistake that’s dismal-looking and potentially damaging because of the heat the concrete reflects onto the towers).

Overall, according to officials of the redevelopment agency, it spent about $56 million in Watts from 1968 to 2011; the biggest chunk was $13.5 million for housing.

“That’s too bad,” Landesman said when told of the new state policy and its implications for arts funding. “That’s a big void, and it’s probably not going to be filled easily from the private sector. When funds are pulled back from the arts, you can have an implosion. Everything goes backwards.”

Will arts advocates in California be able to persuade officials who now control former redevelopment dollars that arts and culture should continue to receive a share?

‘It’s a great question. ... It’s on my radar,’ said Craig Watson, director of the California Arts Council, the state government’s arts agency, who accompanied Landesman.


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-- Mike Boehm