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Panel seeks greater funding for arts

Times Staff Writer

With Los Angeles’ arts funding languishing compared with other California cities, an advisory council of arts and business leaders on Monday unveiled a new playbook of proposals aimed at getting the city back in the game.

Among ideas floated: a 50-cent fee added to monthly cable television bills, a surcharge on car rentals, a hike in the city’s 14% hotel tax, and sweetening the penny on the dollar that the city takes out of the hotel tax pot and funnels to the arts.

“Funding ... must reach the per capita levels associated with excellence in other cities,” says the report by the Mayor’s Arts Council, a 29-member ad hoc panel Mayor James K. Hahn appointed in April in response to the furor over his budget team’s proposal to do away with the Cultural Affairs Department, the agency that issues grants and runs an array of community arts centers.

John Emerson, the council chairman, said the proposed revenue boosters could take years to implement because of the tepid economy and the need to muster public and political support. He said the recommendations are intended as starting points for discussion.

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In an interview after the report’s unveiling at the mayor’s official residence, Getty House, Hahn was cool toward proposals for jacking up government fees to fund the arts. “I appreciate the brainstorming that went on here. We want to look at what other opportunities there are other than raising fees and raising taxes.”

Hahn was most keen on the report’s proposal for a new, independent nongovernmental agency aimed at boosting L.A.'s arts as a tourist attraction -- which would increase the arts budget with visitors’ bucks rather than local taxpayers’.

Instead of disbanding the Cultural Affairs Department last spring in the face of a projected shortfall in the city’s $5.3-billion budget, Hahn and the City Council slashed Cultural Affairs’ budget by nearly 20%, from $11.8 million to $9.5 million.

In fiscal 2003-04 -- before the steep cut -- L.A.'s per capita arts budget was $3.09, according to Americans for the Arts, an advocacy group that represents municipal arts agencies. It trailed San Francisco ($31.65), San Jose ($14.26), San Diego ($8.46) and Long Beach ($3.59). Among the 10 largest cities, L.A. trailed New York ($14.89), Dallas ($11.41), San Diego, Houston ($4.43) and Chicago ($3.76).

Hahn said he isn’t embarrassed that L.A. ranks low by some measures; it’s an L.A. and California tradition to run lean governments, he said, and the city’s standing as a creative mecca “shows you that public funding for the arts doesn’t equal creativity.”

The arts advisory council wants Hahn and the City Council to immediately tap the city’s general fund for the arts, rather than rely only on the hotel tax and the 1% fee that developers of nonresidential projects pay into arts coffers. Emerson said in an interview that it’s “important symbolically as a statement of the city’s commitment to the arts” to restore general fund money as soon as possible.

In a written response to the report, Hahn said he supports and expects “substantial benefit” from the proposed new nongovernment agency dedicated solely to promoting L.A.'s museums, performing arts and other cultural attractions to tourists. Eli Broad, the billionaire philanthropist who served as honorary chairman of the arts advisory committee, is heading that “cultural tourism” initiative. Broad said Friday that he thinks it would be possible to launch the new agency in 2005; he expects its budget would be covered by a mix of private and public sources. High on its agenda would be enlisting “well-known personalities” to be part of a promotional blitz extolling L.A.'s cultural offerings. Broad said that dividing the focus among a group of arts-loving celebrities would be more likely than the single high-profile “cultural czar” he previously had proposed to recruit.

Broad said his group’s preliminary research shows that L.A.'s arts and cultural institutions attract 2.5 million out-of-towners a year, compared with 15 million in New York City, underscoring the need for a focused marketing effort.

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The advisory council’s report recommends leaving the national and international marketing of L.A. to the new private agency, while keeping Cultural Affairs focused on funding and nurturing grass-roots arts efforts in the city. Its promotional work, the report said, should concentrate on drawing L.A. residents rather than tourists.

The Mayor’s Arts Council also looked into financial and logistical operations in the Cultural Affairs Department. It recommended giving the department “sole authority” to run its buildings, where it now must coordinate with other city departments to get maintenance work done. The advisory council called for “more transparent” budgeting that would make it easier to pinpoint the cost of operating each of the department’s 22 facilities.

Also proposed is a temporary moratorium on adding more facilities to that already sprawling list of sites, many of which were acquired piecemeal.

Margie J. Reese, general manager of the Cultural Affairs Department, said she was concerned at times during the advisory council’s examination of her agency that it was looking too closely at small operational details and possibly losing the broader forest of setting good overall policies. “But I think, in the end, the process did justify the heartburn,” she said, by yielding useful recommendations and by putting a spotlight on her sprawling, difficult-to-summarize department.

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