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COMMENTARY : Arts Funding in L.A.: How Not to Do It : Grants: By emphasizing aid to social service projects, the L.A. Endowment for the Arts shortchanges professional artists.

TIMES ART WRITER

Friday is the application deadline for next year’s round of grants to be given out by the Los Angeles Endowment for the Arts. There’s no telling what might be considered for funding in the hotly competitive city program; but, here are some of the visual arts projects that shared in this year’s $316,000 allocation, announced in July:

* Workshops in clay modeling for senior citizens ($12,000);

* Bus posters created by adult students in English-as-a-second-language courses ($8,000);

* Museum education programs for children and families ($65,000);

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* Six different programs of children’s art classes involving immigrants and refugees, latch-key kids, teen-agers, members of a local boys and girls club and students at a neighborhood elementary school ($30,645).

And there are more. Having read through even this short list, you’ll be forgiven for wondering why an arts endowment seems to be making grants for hobbies, social services and recreational activities.

It’s true that many of the projects have been initiated and are being led by artists. But, of the 32 visual arts grants made this year to institutions, community organizations and individuals by the Cultural Affairs Department, at least half went to projects that would seem more appropriately organized by social service agencies or by a parks and recreation department.

How could this happen? Easy. It’s exactly what the L.A. Endowment for the Arts was set up to do.

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The endowment funds two categories of project-oriented programming. One is called institutional advancement and consists of grants to established arts organizations--museums, theaters, artist-run spaces, etc.

The other is something called community arts. These grants are available to virtually any kind of nonprofit institution--including social service organizations with no demonstrable connection to the arts--and to individuals who propose an art project for a hospital, school, correctional facility or other “designated social institution.”

Published guidelines for endowment grants in community arts, which this year distributed more than $1.2 million in eligible disciplines (dance, music, theater, visual arts, etc.), are explicit in stating their aim. The program’s three-fold purpose is “to provide opportunities to people who are not professional artists to actively practice the arts in community settings; to make it possible for non-professionals to work with professionals in community settings; to enable community arts organizations to work with professional artists to improve their programs for non-professionals .”

The italics here are mine, but the emphasis is the city’s. Serious working artists aren’t the principal concern of this enormous effort. Instead, the focus is on arts consumers and amateurs.

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Perceived needs of “the community,” especially “the under-served community,” fuel community arts, and close attention is paid to equitable distribution of city funds throughout all 15 councilmanic districts. Funded projects are designed to address issues of the working poor, the abandoned elderly, inadequacies of public schooling, the homeless and so on.

Societal problems such as these are of course very real, even severe. Yet, it’s not too much to ask if a civic endowment for the arts, whose mandate is (or ought to be) the support and encouragement of artistic merit, is quite the place to attempt to deal with such crushing deficiencies. The fact that an after-school program might be helping latch-key kids or that a clay modeling class might make life less trying for senior citizens is not a useful criterion for judging grant programs sponsored by a department for cultural affairs.

Nonetheless, this is what the City of Los Angeles is demanding. Why? Look to the city’s Cultural Master Plan for the answer.

To the great surprise of absolutely no one, the 1990 Master Plan report showed that, historically, the overwhelming majority of grants dollars, from both public and private sources, went to white artists and white-controlled arts organizations, principally downtown and on the Westside.

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How could this restrictive pattern be broken, rather than merely replicated in perpetuity? Community arts is the Cultural Affairs Department’s answer: If the arts infrastructure is weak or even nonexistent in some areas of L.A., turn the social services infrastructure that already does exist throughout the city into a conduit for arts support.

The scheme is clever, while the goal of diversifying cultural patterns is exemplary. Still, the project-oriented community arts program is perverse. For, unless a painter can help latch-key kids avoid some of the pitfalls of unsupervised time after school, or unless a sculptor can use her skills to better the lives of the elderly, the City of Los Angeles finds no apparent use in the support and encouragement of their work.

Fellowship support is not available to artists who make work for contemplation--which is to say, not available to the majority of artists at work today. Artists are in effect told by the city, “Set aside your work and become a part-time teacher, program administrator or social worker.”

This year, endowment grants went to 15 visual artists to conduct social service projects. Ostensibly, such grants are the only way to involve individual artists in endowment programs, because the City Charter reportedly restricts its expenditures to services contracted for the city. Fellowships to individuals are prohibited.

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Wisely, this prohibition removes any danger of direct political patronage of individual citizens. But that doesn’t mean the endowment must be structured the way it is now. The department could establish so-called regranting programs, which were strongly recommended in an independent administrative study commissioned by the city two years ago.

Regranting programs are indirect methods of making grants to artists of demonstrated excellence. Locally, for example, the California Community Foundation administers two small grant programs to individual artists, while LACE, the artist-run space, operates a third. The Los Angeles Endowment for the Arts could assess such independent, nonprofit, community arts projects, which are shielded from political influence, and, if they measure up, contract their services for the city.

Politically, would regranting programs fly? The Cultural Affairs Department is answerable to the City Council, a place where appeals to social programs for nursing homes, schools and other such agencies can be more easily made--and more easily defended to constituents--than can the idea of fellowships to artists. Still, if political expediency is the principal motivating factor, can the L.A. Endowment for the Arts ever hope for more than mediocrity?

The city would also do well to take a cue from the original founding of the National Endowment for the Arts, when great fear was expressed that big organizations and name-artists, principally in Eastern cities with established arts infrastructures, such as New York, would gobble up the lion’s share of funds and leave the rest of the nation perpetually wanting.

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It didn’t happen, because a two-track system was devised. One is a meritocracy, in which diversity is required not among the recipients of grants, but in the makeup of peer panels who decide on expenditures--which is where true power lies. The other is a separate, annual allotment to each of the 50 states. Couldn’t something similar be established in Los Angeles, with its 15 city districts?

A change in L.A.'s present system is essential because art with--or without--a pointed social dimension ought to be generated by the imperatives of artists themselves. More than institutions and organizations, individual artists make the substantial contributions to cultural life in any city. By contrast, through the Los Angeles Endowment for the Arts the social consequences of art are not just mandated, they’re directed by city bureaucracy. Government is established in the guise of a socially proactive artist--a rather horrifying thought by any standard.


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