A long simmering dispute between the city of Los Angeles’ Cultural Affairs Department and artist Willie Middlebrook, a former employee in the department, is likely to come to a head on June 8, when the Civil Service Commission is scheduled to hear his appeal for reinstatement.
Middlebrook, a prominent photographer, was removed from his position as director of the Watts Towers Arts Center on June 25, 1993, after less than six months on the job. The action was taken after Earl Sherburn, the city’s community arts director, judged Middlebrook’s performance to be substandard and cited him for various infractions, including falsifying neighborhood workers’ time sheets.
Middlebrook denied the charges, but he was reassigned to his former position as a photography instructor. Ten months later, on April 26, he was terminated from city employment by Adolfo V. Nodal, general manager of the Cultural Affairs Department.
Middlebrook said that a false charge of tampering with four time sheets is the excuse for his firing, but the artist, who is black, believes the actual catalyst was his public criticism of the department’s expenditure of $19,000 on an exhibition that he believes perpetuated negative stereotypes of black men.
“I was critical of spending that much money on the show when I couldn’t even get a skylight fixed at the Watts Towers Arts Center,” Middlebrook said. The exhibition, “Soul Shadows: Urban Warrior Myths,” a multimedia installation by New Orleans artist Dawn Dedeaux, was presented last spring at the Los Angeles Photography Center.
Nodal confirmed that Middlebrook had been terminated and that his appeal will be heard on June 8. But Nodal declined to comment on the cause of dismissal or any other aspect of the case, claiming that he is prohibited by law from discussing personnel matters.
Meanwhile, the Coalition for Cultural Survival of Community Arts, an African American community group, has sent a letter to city officials protesting “the vicious, racist, fascist and character assassination behavior in the dismissal of CAD employee Willie Middlebrook” and calling for a review of Nodal’s administration.
Citing the city attorney’s counsel, Nodal declined to comment on the letter.