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Skid Row Artists Voice Hopes for $20-Million L.A. Endowment

Henry Brown, a homeless man painting a mural on Skid Row, has a dream shared by many from the blighted area who met there Wednesday to discuss their hopes for the new $20-million Los Angeles Endowment for the Arts.

“I’d like to see a place I can go and work, where I can refine my talent and get materials,” said Brown, one of about 100 gathered at the East 6th Street office of the Homeless Outreach Program, a service organization.

“You see all those unfinished drawings?” he said, pointing to a wall where his works were hung. “That’s all you’re ever going to see without a place to go. Unfinished drawings.”

The endowment, which could increase municipal arts funding from about $5 million to $25 million, won’t be fully operational for about a year.

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But some of its funds, to be generated through fees on most non-residential private development, city capital improvements and money from the city’s general fund, will be available around July. And, as city officials begin to design endowment spending plans and overall policy, hundreds in the local art community are gathering to voice their concerns about how the money is spent.

Wednesday’s meeting, arranged by Barbara Frost, an organizer of the homeless, was the third of such forums attended by Al Nodal, general manager of the city’s Cultural Affairs Department and chief endowment administrator. Though this group was smaller than the gatherings already held by black artists and a new group calling itself the Arts Congress, many of its members had a vision--the revitalization of Skid Row through art--that was no less grand.

“Artists should be at the vanguard of the transformation of Skid Row” where “life has lost meaning” for many, said Frost, who has lived on Skid Row since September and was a missionary in Central America for 17 years. She has been supervising the painting of Brown’s surreal, spiritually-themed mural on a building facing 5th Street.

“The time has come for a people’s cultural center” offering classes, exhibitions and performances, she said, echoing Brown’s desire.

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Clyde Casey had expansive ideas too. He talked about making the area a place people will want to come and suggested that the endowment should pay jugglers, magicians and mimes to create street festivals like those in New Orleans. Casey is the founder of Another Planet, a wildly decorated converted gas station at the corner of Wall and Boyd streets that is part homeless hangout, part “cultural communications center” with poetry readings, video screenings, chess games and other activities.

“That potential to bring downtown alive is right here, right here in the heart of L.A.,” said Casey, who wore what looked like a clear plastic motorcycle helmet adorned with silver sequins and a large, blinking eye.

Others spoke of needs heard repeatedly at the two previous endowment meetings. Funds should be used to pay individual artists, to fund working and living spaces, and for art programs in prisons, halfway houses and mental hospitals, and for the youth and elderly, they said.

While most of those at the meeting were not known artists--indeed, many were homeless--others who shared their concerns for the area represented established groups, including three theater organizations, the TheatreWorker’s Project, Pipeline Inc., which recently closed two downtown theaters, and Spring Street’s Los Angeles Theatre Center.

Nodal, credited with helping to revitalize crime-ridden MacArthur Park through a widely acclaimed community art program he launched there in 1983, told those gathered that the endowment was designed to support historically underfunded areas of Los Angeles, such as Skid Row, and that “art can be a tool to help cities deal with urban issues.”

“This city has realized that art can help the city address many of the problems we face. . . . We want the endowment to marry community needs and artistic needs.”

For information on future endowment meetings on Skid Row and elsewhere, call the city’s Cultural Affairs Department: (213) 485-2433.


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