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City-Sponsored Freedom

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer.

“Ten thousand dollars doesn’t hurt,” says sculptor Sarah Perry. That’s the bottom line for artists who win COLA (city of Los Angeles) grants. Awarded annually on a competitive basis--to recognize the achievements of mid-career, Los Angeles-based artists--the $10,000 grants provide unfettered funds for the creation of new work.

The awards aren’t based on financial need, but they make a difference, the artists say. Even if the sum isn’t grand enough for the winners to quit their day jobs or change their lifestyles, it goes a long way toward the purchase of equipment and materials. An iMac for painter Tom Knechtel, who uses the new computer in his artwork and has incorporated an image of it in one of his meticulously detailed paintings. A life-size fiberglass horse for Liz Young, who has coated the beast with foam and girdle fabric as part of her installation of skin-like clothing and animals who appear to have exposed flesh instead of fur.

“But the best part is freedom,” says Perry, commenting on the unaccustomed luxury of financial support. “Money is time. It’s much better to have time to do your work than to be a greeter at Wal-Mart.” She hasn’t taken up that line of employment, but--like many of the other grant winners--she often struggles to find enough money and time to focus on her creative pursuits.

The works that she and nine other 2000-01 grant winners have created with their city-provided infusions of cash will be on view in “COLA 2001,” which opens Friday at the Skirball Cultural Center.

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Known for creating giant apes made of castoff tires and for delicate, small-scale sculptures, intricately crafted of bleached skeletons and other desert gleanings, Perry has used much of her grant-given freedom to build “Beast of Burden,” a 9-foot-tall rocket made of large animals’ leg and jaw bones. She has also constructed several small pieces, including “Pull of the Moon,” a lacy, 2-foot-tall spiral staircase composed of bird and rodent bones.

These improbable creations will be displayed alongside a wall projection of computerized animation by Jennifer Steinkamp, an installation of photo-based abstractions by Susan Rankaitis, and a cycle of paintings and etchings by Sandow Birk on the rise and fall of Rafael Perez, the Los Angeles police officer-turned-informant embroiled in the Rampart Division scandal.

The eclectic exhibition of works produced with the 2000-01 grants will also offer a suite of photographic self-portraits by Laura Aguilar, conceptual musings on the nature of life in a media-saturated world by Bruce Yonemoto, and a film by Robert Nakamura about Japanese American photographer Toyo Miyatake, who was interned at Manzanar during World War II.

Perhaps the most unusual project is John Outterbridge’s plan to re-create “Oh Speak Speak,” a structure he built in 1970 as a community gathering and art-display place in Watts. He will show a small model, computer renderings and a documentary storyboard to illustrate the original structure and his plan to rebuild it at a location yet to be designated. Additional funds are needed to make the proposal a reality, but he hopes to complete it in a year or so.

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On the one hand, “COLA 2001" is a showcase for the work created with the city’s support. But it also marks the fifth birthday of a program that has risen above its troubled past.

The city initiated grants for the arts in 1988, but they were limited to artists who worked in partnership with social service agencies. That’s because the city charter forbids giving money to individuals; the artists were hired as independent contractors who performed services for the city.

While those grants--which continue--benefit the relatively small number of artists who cast themselves as social activists, they eliminate many more. Over time, objections to the narrow parameters intensified, and the pool of applicants dwindled. Attempts to solve the problems eventually led to the realization that the city’s Cultural Affairs Department, which administers the awards, is itself a social service agency. It serves the community partly by presenting art exhibitions, so it can give grants to artists who show their work in a public forum.

The new program--initially called Individual Artist Grants and now called COLA Individual Artist Fellowships--was launched in fiscal 1996-97, and it’s been going strong ever since. The artists, who must have at least 15 years of exhibition experience to apply, are chosen by peer panels on the basis of merit. Grant money comes from the city’s transient occupancy tax, also known as the hotel bed tax.

“We had to think long and hard about how to do this so that it would be legal,” says Roella Hsieh Louie, director of grants, planning and public art for the department. But timing was also critical, she says, noting that the birth of the program coincided with the death of National Endowment for the Arts grants to individual artists.

Now that the program “has come of age,” Louie says, it symbolizes the city’s commitment to its artists. As for the annual exhibitions, she says, “What I love is that they are a dynamic, vibrant representation of art here in Southern California.”

The current visual arts COLA grantees were chosen by panelists Jay Belloli, director of gallery programs at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena; Tomas Benitez, executive director of Self-Help Graphics in East L.A.; Shari Frilot, a programmer for the Sundance Institute in Utah; Karin Higa, senior curator at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo; Erika Suderberg, a professor of art and film at UC Riverside (and winner of a COLA grant in 1998); and Thomas Rhoads, manager of administration at the J. Paul Getty Museum and former director of the Santa Monica Museum of Art. They selected the 10 artists from about 120 applicants.

“Their decisions are faith-based,” Louie says, noting that applicants submit examples of works they have completed, not proposals for what they hope to accomplish with a grant. That leaves them free to let their art evolve instead of conforming to an unworkable plan or a curator’s idea, she says.

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“We hope they use this as an opportunity to try something new,” says Mark Johnstone, public art administrator at the department. “It’s a very small, city-provided sabbatical.”

One of Johnstone’s major responsibilities is to edit the COLA exhibition catalogs. That entails commissioning writers to contribute essays, compiling explanatory text about the artists and their work, and overseeing the design, done by students at Otis College of Art and Design. This year, United Airlines has paid the printing costs.

The illustrated, paperback publication is a collaborative effort with satisfying results, Johnstone says. But it’s also “the nightmare of all catalogs because we are working with living artists who haven’t made the work yet, and with designers who want to see the work nine months before it is done.”

Another aspect of the exhibition requiring a flexible approach is the venue. The first three shows were held at the city’s Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park, the logical place for a city-sponsored art show. But the gallery is closed for renovation, so the exhibition had to find another home for a few years. The UCLA Hammer Museum was the host last year; this year the show is at the Skirball. Next year’s venue hasn’t been announced, but Louie says the exhibition will probably return to the Muni in 2003, when the renovation should be complete.

Looking back on the early days of the grants, Louie says she’s well aware of criticism that the Cultural Affairs Department was more engaged in “social engineering” than art. But, in addition to finding a way to work within the city charter, it was essential to develop a program that civic politicians could understand and accept. Once the socially oriented grants got going, it was relatively easy to add a more sophisticated component.

“We couldn’t have launched this immediately,” she says. But the COLA awards to visual artists have not only survived, they have paved the way for other civic support for the arts. Performing arts fellowships were added in 1999-2000. This year’s winners are dancers Dulce Capadocia and Jacques Heim, and multimedia performers Dan Froot and Licia Perea.

And that isn’t the end of it. “A new category of design will be added next year,” Louie says.

*

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* “COLA 2001,” Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. (310) 440-4500 . Friday through July 15. Tuesdays-Saturdays, noon-5 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. General admission, $8; students, artists and seniors, $6; children under 12, free.


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