L.A.'s New Arts Czar: From Activist to Advocate

These days, Adolfo V. (Al) Nodal, the city’s new cultural chief, wears conservative suits and silk ties to work. His spacious office on the 15th floor of City Hall boasts an oversize desk and an expansive view of the San Gabriel Mountains and Chinatown. He spends a lot of time in tedious City Council meetings, monotonous municipal planning sessions and does lunch with bureaucrats and politicians.

The life style couldn’t be further from the one that Nodal carried out the last time he lived here.

From 1983 to early 1988, as head of an acclaimed community-based public art program that revitalized crime-ridden MacArthur Park, he liked to wear jeans and work boots on the job, where he befriended the homeless, underprivileged youth and struggling Central American immigrant population.

“I used to get up at 5 in the morning three times a week, meet the maintenance staff there, hang out and then go clean graffiti in the park,” said Nodal, who made the project a personal mission, living across the street from the facility.


Indeed, life of late often feels different for Nodal. As general manager of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, he now oversees a new city arts program, the Los Angeles Endowment for the Arts, which increases municipal arts funding from $4.9 million to about $25 million and could dramatically alter the local arts scene, many say.

But Nodal’s vision for the department and the endowment isn’t so different from the one that rejuvenated MacArthur Park and earned him lots of fans wherever he’s worked.

“I think that Al is one of the great advocates of the arts in this country,” said Howard N. Fox, curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who worked with Nodal in Washington. “The records have shown he is one of the great realizers of his vision.”

Funds for the new $20-million endowment, generated through a mix of dollars from the city’s general fund and fees on private and municipal development, won’t be dispersed before July, Nodal said in a recent interview at City Hall.

Plans for who’ll get how much and how the money will be awarded won’t be ready until then either, he said.

However, the man many call energetic and optimistic, has definite ideas about running the department. And he’s ready to guide the endowment, which is designed to commission performing and visual artworks, to provide support for individual artists, arts organizations, arts education, performance and studio spaces, and preserve the city’s cultural heritage and promote the arts.

“In the last decade, the city has focused on establishing its major art institutions,” Nodal said, noting the construction of such cultural “jewels” as the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Los Angeles Theatre Center and the expansion of the County Museum of Art.

“But I think we haven’t done enough to support the individual artist, to support artists in every neighborhood throughout the city, artists on the cutting edge that are doing new work, artists in smaller organizations and multicultural (ethnic) artists.


“I’m hoping in the next 10 years we’ll put a lot of our energy into those areas and help to develop things from the bottom up while also supporting the big centers,” said the 38-year-old Cuban-born former artist.

“We need an elite level of culture and a popular level of culture. . . . It isn’t a question of taking money away from the bigger organizations, but increasing money to the smaller ones.

“This town is on the forefront of the arts,” he asserted. “It’s a world-class arts community and it’s really going to grow. I really feel I can help the arts community and the artists here.”

Nodal, who spends many evenings at arts events often put on by close friends, said he plans to carry out his vision by “being out there personally” to urge the emerging artists and organizations to apply for endowment support. He plans to place them on peer review panels that will help award the funds.


(Specifically, Nodal predicts that these artists will most benefit from endowment funds taken from the city’s general budget, about $5 million. These resources, equivalent to 1% of the city’s 12% hotel tax, will not be restricted to a specific site, as will development monies.)

He says he will involve artists in the inner workings of the city government by placing them on community planning boards that would serve every neighborhood. “If every one of those planning boards could have an artist on it, and have an art agenda, then we’d have a ready-made structure for the whole city.”

And, he wants to speak with “every possible group,” from homeless shelters to youth facilities to the Music Center, to foster a consensus approach to create art that serves community needs as well as just being good art.

All of these ideas hark back to Nodal’s previous endeavors, such as the MacArthur Park Public Art Project, which he ran for the Otis Art Institute of Parson’s School of Design while director of exhibitions there.


Using art as a catalyst for social change, Nodal united emerging and established, often ethnic artists with residents of the largely Latino Westlake community, local merchants and government officials to transform the dilapidated hangout for pushers, prostitutes and drunks into a safer, more beautiful place.

Under Nodal’s guidance, artist Judy Simonian created colorful pyramids that doubled as children’s playground toys and drew attention to the need for a new play area. Eighteen months later the City’s Department of Recreation and Parks put one in. Artist Patssi Valdez helped poor teen-agers who had been bent on writing graffiti to paint a mural in the park’s old band shell.

Such projects, along with 16 other public artworks eventually installed in the park, helped turn the area around. Crime dropped by as much as 63% early in the effort, police records show, and the community returned to its park. (Drug use, however, has driven crime up in the last nine months, police report.)

“I think the park project is one of most innovative things that’s been done in L.A. and bodes well for the new endowment and Al’s management of the department,” said Connie Glenn, director of the University Art Museum at Cal State Long Beach.


“Al was able to harmoniously bring together a whole range of community interests--the people, the police, the Recreation and Parks Department, business people, gangs and artists and the community institutions,” said Joel Wachs, the L.A. city councilman who spearheaded efforts for the endowment’s recent passage through the council.

Before MacArthur Park, Nodal had already established himself in Washington as an advocate of the grass-roots art community, a supporter of diverse ethnic expression, an arts administrator who collaborated with the community at large, and a champion of the avant-garde.

The Washington Project for the Arts (WPA), which Nodal directed from 1978 to 1983, is a prominent multidiscipline alternative art center, like Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), which supports work by living artists.

“Al was always known as a really strong advocate of living artists and their work--highly experimental work,” said Jock Reynolds, the WPA’s current executive director and Nodal’s successor.


“At the WPA, I presented the first Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass concerts in D.C.,” Nodal said, citing two internationally known leaders of performance art and contemporary music.

“A good part of the WPA’s programming involved black artists,” said Walter Hopps, a WPA board of directors member during Nodal’s tenure and director of Houston’s Menil Collection. “And Al was particularly sensitive to seeing that women were represented.”

Nodal founded a public art program at the WPA that has since placed 65 public artworks throughout the city in subway stations, storefronts and vacant lots, Reynolds said.

Nodal, who will earn $66,711.66 annually and now oversees a staff of 51, was also an “exemplary” manager, Reynolds said. “The patronage side of our board really happened under Al’s directorship and we’re now really flourishing. We’ve tripled our budget (to $800,000) in the last 5 years, and just completed a $2 million capital campaign.”


Praise for Nodal’s abilities also comes from colleagues at the Contemporary Art Center in New Orleans. Also run like LACE, there he served as executive director for most of 1988 year before assuming his new post here on Nov. 7.

“He has a very inclusive and generous vision of art,” said George Dureau, an artist on the center’s board of directors. “He felt that no artist is too low or inexperienced to use.”

Locally, the feeling is similar.

“For L.A. artists, he clearly was the candidate,” said performance artist Tim Miller, referring to Mayor Tom Bradley’s decision to name Nodal to run the cultural affairs department. “Almost everyone I knew wrote a letter of support prior to his appointment.”


Few indeed are those who have anything negative to say about Nodal.

One local, well-respected museum official, who didn’t want to be identified, questioned his achievement here, however. “I’ve never been overly impressed by what happened at Otis (Art Institute),” the official said. “I can’t recall a single exhibit of distinction.”

Nodal defends his record at Otis, citing, for instance, an exhibit that documented “CIVIL warS,” the mega-opera by Robert Wilson, a leading avant-garde artist/playwright, that never made it to the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival for lack of funding.

Assisted by a solitary staff member, he also said his hands were “sort of tied” by an obligation to use the gallery to represent the community and all the school’s departments, including fashion and design.


Merry Norris, president of the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Commission, an advisory committee to Nodal’s department, was among many who staunchly defended Nodal’s fine art expertise.

“I’ve known Al for about five years and worked with him in the visual arts on a variety of things,” Norris said, including a committee Nodal help found that advises the Community Redevelopment Agency on the selection and funding of public artworks.

The arts first took hold of Nodal, the bilingual son of a boat builder who moved from Cuba to Miami in 1957, in a college photojournalism class. The fascination led him to pursue photography, then conceptual art. He holds a master’s degree in contemporary art at San Francisco State University and did graduate work at UC Berkeley’s Museum Management Institute.

Easygoing, often lauded for an open mind and good working relationships, he wants to rebuild moral and credibility in the cultural affairs department. (Those qualities were lacking, he said, during the tenure of his predecessor Fred Croton, who resigned after disclosures that Croton had lied on his resume.)


Along those lines, Nodal said he intends to work closely with the mayor and City Council, adding that a plan to form a nonprofit organization to advise the endowment with private-sector members will probably be scrapped.

Nodal also wants to use art “as a social tool,” as he did in MacArthur Park, though he’s quick to stress he’s “not a social worker.”

“I’ll be asking my staffers to develop exhibits that deal with AIDS and homelessness and other issues,” he said.

Whatever Nodal’s aims, he seems to have widespread support. “I think the council really likes him,” said Councilman Wachs. “He’s able to relate to all segments: To the established institutions, to the smaller and midsize groups, to the traditional and to the avant-garde. Someone in a job like his is going to have to be able to relate to a lot of interests.”


“If anyone is equiped to handle all these exciting new ventures, Al is,” said Glenn, who has run the Long Beach university museum for 16 years. “And I think everyone feels that way.”