The city’s state of the arts
THE ARTS COMMUNITY IN LOS ANGELES has always seemed to exist somewhere in the shadows of the glitz, glamour and even scandals of the Hollywood entertainment world. But with the opening of the Getty Center, Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, the appointment of conductor Gustavo Dudamel to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the numerous theater world-premiere offerings and the emergence of the Los Angeles Opera, the “city of the future” is once again trying to establish itself as an internationally recognized cultural center. To explore these changes and discuss the challenges and issues facing arts institutions, The Times recently brought together the leaders of five major institutions in the city. Participating in the roundtable with Times editors and writers were: Deborah Borda, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn.; Placido Domingo, general director of Los Angeles Opera; Michael Govan, director and chief executive of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Michael Ritchie, artistic director of Center Theatre Group, which includes the Ahmanson Theatre, Mark Taper Forum and the Kirk Douglas Theatre; and James N. Wood, president and chief executive of the Getty Trust. Nearly all of them came to Los Angeles from the East Coast less than three years ago and discovered, to their surprise, a landscape ripe for development. Following is a partial transcript.
Question: Could each of you talk about what attracted you to Los Angeles?
Govan: In the visual arts and particularly in contemporary art, L.A. has emerged very recently as one of the major centers of art production -- and it’s on the rise. There’s momentum. The trend line here is up. Artists are fantastic indicators of cultural growth of great cities. In many cities, when artists come in, real estate does, or cultural institutions.
Having spent so much time in New York [most recently as head of the Dia Art Foundation], with a more Euro-centric approach, you can palpably feel -- in Los Angeles -- this connection to Latin America and to Asia. You feel a balanced perspective of the world situation.
And finally, there’s a lot to do here; it’s in the process of being made, as a place, culturally. When I first got here we had one of these conversations, and people were standing up and saying, “Well, L.A. already is a cultural capital.” And the fact is, it’s not by some of the standards. I think that’s what was attractive -- that its future was not certain but that its future was uncertain. So that thrill of the uncertainty was as much of it as anything.
Wood: Well, the appeal to me was very selfish: There was a chance for a new life, an unexpected life. After two years of retirement, I didn’t think that L.A. was going to be my home. For both my wife and I, actually, it’s the ideal place to be at this moment. I’ve had the good fortune to spend time in New York and in Chicago [after being president of the Chicago Art Institute], and if one is going to be an American patriot, as I consider myself, then you have to know the third layer of this school.
At Getty, I knew I would have to learn at a tremendous pace, and frankly, at my age, that’s really exciting. And I have not been disappointed. It’s an institution with all kinds of potential, a short track record -- a good one. Many mistakes, many successes. So how it relates to Los Angeles was an opportunity to sort of learn in overtime. And the other really appealing factor, beyond the artists and whatnot, was the people running the other visual arts institutions. I realize that’s only one small piece of the cultural scene here, but they’re all younger than me, they’re all smarter than me, and it’s a great community. So the odds of success are very good here.
Domingo: Los Angeles has been, for me, a constant in my life. Whatever happens, I always come back to Los Angeles. It’s a city where everybody, everything is developing -- in the museums, in the Philharmonic, with the music, in the Ahmanson. Everything is growing. I thought the relationship with Hollywood was something that we could use -- and that we have been using -- to a great success.
The people are proud of the city. I think people are really helping. In many cases you see that many people give money in order to make a tax deduction; I don’t see that as much here. They really love the company, they really demonstrate it by helping.
One of the great things about Los Angeles is that -- even though any time I’m here I have to work -- more than in any other place, I have the feeling always that I’m on vacation, don’t ask me why. [Laughs.]
Ritchie: What interested me in coming up here originally was the job that was in front of me, the challenge of that particular job. As you can imagine, having spent almost 30 years living in New York [and as head of the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts], I had an imbalanced view of Los Angeles and New York, which is maybe unfair. The more I went through the process -- the more I spent time thinking about Los Angeles -- the more I realized that it is a city that is going through an enormous change, and in many ways the impacts in the culture are leading that change.
There was a lot about the city that became exciting to me. I don’t understand the city at all, and I don’t think I ever will. But I have become interested in it, being part of the cultural scene and being part of this conversation, the dialogue.
Borda: I was running the oldest musical organization in the world [the New York Philharmonic], and there were three things that really attracted me to Los Angeles -- a surprise for me. The critical mass for me was: possibility, people and places.
The possibility goes back to when I was 8 years old and I was given the most magnificent birthday gift -- I was taken to Disneyland. It’s every child’s dream. I remember I got here from New York, and it was intoxicating. I had never seen a palm tree! There was just this sense of everything is possible: Whatever you dreamed of was possible. That’s not true of every place.
In terms of people, it was actually two people who convinced me: Esa-Pekka Salonen and Frank Gehry.
And all the possibilities: I thought of the possibilities -- if we got Disney Concert Hall, and if we used it to really reinvent not just the Los Angeles Philharmonic but the entire concept of what an orchestra of the 21st century can do, what an orchestra of the 21st century can be.
Q: Los Angeles, like so many large metropolises, is becoming a city of growing income and cultural disparities. How are you as institutions addressing this dual reality of a city in which there are very wealthy people who consume culture, along with a huge, growing class of people who’ve never set foot in any of your institutions?
Borda: One of the issues that we all deal with is the balancing act between being an artistic institution and a social service institution. If we don’t protect the values of excellence and innovation, we will take our institutions down.
We spend a lot of time thinking about this. We cannot provide music education in every single school -- we’d love to, but that’s probably not the best use of what we do. It came to us that we could be conveners, if we could take full advantage of where we now sit in the city in terms of a great musical organization, a great orchestra, the Hollywood Bowl, all the things that we do. If we could use that to bring together the many different fabrics of the community and play that role of a convener, that would be the best way that we could use the power and the excellence of this institution.
We made a very determined statement in the selection of our new music director, who, at the time I think, had just turned 26. Someone who speaks Spanish. Some 51% of the people in L.A. speak Spanish.
So how can you leverage this? You can’t put a museum or an art education program in every single school. You can bring people into the museum, but you’ve got to do more than that.
Changing the relationship with
an evolving city
Q: Does anybody have ideas?
Wood: One of the most gratifying experiences I had was the first week I came out to the Getty Center on the weekend. Frankly, I was shocked in the most positive way by the diversity of the audience.
The challenge for us is to get people to feel welcome and to help them physically get to the hill -- because unless you come to those two campuses, you will never experience the incredible product that’s at the core of what we make available. The nice thing about having a little more money than I had before is we provide buses to Title 1 schools. It’s the most practical, mundane way to get kids there, and it’s probably one of the best things we do.
We tried to change school curriculum. Frankly, it was a noble experiment that, at the end of the day, just didn’t prove productive enough. But my first inclination is, yes, we should go out. But we are where we are, and where we are is extraordinary. Bring people to us. People want the experience, they just want to feel at ease coming to it.
Domingo: I think that one of the most important things we have in the opera is the education program. Thousands of children get the possibility to do something directly, first with music, then even the possibility to write their own music and then, you know, make operatic themes. I don’t know why music is not mandatory in schools. I mean you only have to do it maybe once a week. Every child would learn the principal things from the symphonies and the artists, without even knowing that they were learning music, classical music.
We have such a disadvantage today, with the pop music available for every kid. The parents, probably, they are listening to that music at home. And they go to the iPod and whatever they have available and they have pop music. They have a class at school and they are singing pop music. For us, it’s a big battle.
I think, of course, the media is more interested, with simulcasts coming from many of the opera houses or the symphony halls. It’s absolutely extraordinary that so many people are paying $18 to see a live opera, in a cinema. The generations are younger. Of course, many of our public is in the 60s and in their 70s, some are in the 80s. But fortunately they feel the spirit and the strength to come out and go to see the opera. But we have more of the generation in their 30s and 40s, which is very good.
Wood: That’s a metaphor, I think for L.A., that you start with youth and you go backward. In a young city, you start with contemporary art and you go against the chronology and hopefully eventually you find a Rembrandt up on the hill. Most places I’ve worked before tended to start chronologically with art history and came to the present era. It’s the reverse here.
Govan: The nice thing about the Broad Museum is that contemporary art is right at the entrance. I think it’s interesting to think about how the different arts can work together, because performing arts, in general, have a linear relationship to the multicultural experience. The cool thing about museums, for me, was that it was all at one time: Anybody in L.A., anybody from any walk of life, any background, can come to an encyclopedic museum and they can find something of their culture and something of a contrast with another.
So if you could imagine an encyclopedic museum starting in the present, with all cultures, in the center of L.A. -- and now we have a 20-acre park. You had to totally redistribute the fortress that had been put up previously; the wall of the old museum was like “don’t go there.” Hopefully, you can make an invitation that is fun. And family friendly, because culture, I think, is digested here more by families than in other cities. People talk about transportation and they say, “Oh, no one can get here. That’s why the attendance is so low.” And I say, “How come, like, 13 million people a year go to the Grove, the shopping mall two blocks away?” So it cannot be transportation. That can’t be the issue, there has to be another issue. Maybe you have to restructure the experience in a different way.
We spend a million and a half dollars a year in city schools. We also bring a quarter-million kids into the museum every year. And one of my board members said, “Well, could you bring a million?” I thought about it and said, “Well, I don’t know. That would be kind of like putting a man on the moon -- you would have to restructure your parking and support systems, and maybe your facilities, but I suppose you can make that a goal.”
Who doesn’t scream about the fact that arts aren’t in schools? It’s incredibly aggravating. I wonder, as a modest proposal, since L.A. is supposed to be able to do anything, why couldn’t we reverse it and make L.A. form curriculum around arts? We could.
Borda: In each of our organizations, we all spend millions, but it’s not enough. And what I was actually thinking about before was: Is there some way we could work collectively to do that?
I was just really fascinated by Jim’s analogy of working backward and forward in time. When I meet with people who run the other major orchestras in the United States, they ask, “How do you get people to come? You do so much contemporary music.” We’re running 94% of attendance in the winter and over a million people in the summer at the Bowl. But it is a younger audience -- and I think we sort of worked back the other way as well.
Wood: It’s been my perspective from the beginning: It’s not that the Getty should be more contemporary, we need to be plugged into this contemporary culture. But it seems to me that if L.A. is going to have a really dynamic, profound, contemporary culture, it has to be grounded in a historical perspective. Otherwise, it’s empty. And that’s what we don’t want to be. There’s plenty of that, and I’m fascinated by how you can use the entertainment industry. We haven’t been smart enough to figure it out yet.
Hollywood -- and its
money -- isn’t important
Q: It’s been a pipe dream in this city forever to bring in Hollywood. There was always this idea that if you can get to Hollywood people, you would have this cash flow to support the arts. What is each of you doing to bring Hollywood more into the local arts picture beyond asking a Hollywood director to direct an opera or casting a star in a role at the Ahmanson.
Ritchie: That presumes that Hollywood is an entity that can be grasped.
Q: Presume then.
Ritchie: I can’t, because it’s not. It’s putting the onus on a name that isn’t even correct. I mean, Hollywood is a town, itself, and the industry is not even localized in that town -- it’s so spread out. And there are many individuals or corporate entities that are part of the larger entertainment industry that I think do take part in what we’re doing.
Wood: Defining Hollywood as some other thing you have to tap is a tar baby.
Ritchie: I don’t see them as a savior.
Borda: Because they’re undergoing the same kind of redefinition. Many of our institutions have dared to reimagine themselves, to reinvent themselves. They’re suffering through this now.
Q: Well, frankly, all the power and the money is being transferred over to Google, more than all the studios combined. The question is tapping into that money, and that kind of power. Has the game changed?
Domingo: I think everybody is busy and worried at the same time. You would think that with such a great Hollywood community, the amount of important people in the city -- actors, actresses, directors, producers -- but everybody who is anybody is busy, constantly. It’s so difficult to count on people. If you want to invite a certain amount of personalities, no one can give you an answer until maybe two days before the event. You never know when they are going to be in town, when they are not going to be in town.
So I try to say to them, “You know how important arts and culture is for your family. Maybe it’s very rare you can go to the opera, but you have to have a full subscription, because your children, your in-laws, anybody in your family needs to have culture in the city.” I mean, if every one of them would have subscriptions to the Philharmonic, for the Ahmanson, to go to the museums, to go to the opera, it is a tremendous contribution.
Ritchie: In a museum, you have goals over time. Our goals are set every day, and they are concrete. The seats are there, and you are attempting to fill them.
Beyond that, we start talking about the social services contract we have as nonprofits and as arts institutions that’s been imposed upon us, because the government, particularly in the school system, has given up its responsibility to bring culture to the community. So it’s falling upon us completely, whereas we used to be partners in bringing culture to the community. We now are not just the leaders, we’re the only ones. The burden has been put on institutions to teach as well as to create the art form.
Q: What’s the role of transportation when you are talking about serving the greater community?
Domingo: When people want to go to places, they will go. It is very sad that every performance has to start in the rush hour. So it’s hard for people. I really feel a lot of admiration for people who have been working all day, and then they have to start driving at 5:30, and they hardly make it at 8 o’clock to come here to the Philharmonic or to the opera, to the arts. I think this is amazing. This is one of the problems we have downtown, that would be fantastic to have transportation.
Borda: Yes, the subway, the subway.
Govan: The subway.
Q: A quick observation, obviously generalizing, but with your predecessors Hollywood was more sought after, it was more significant. Everyone here is sort of saying, “We’ve got our own deal going.”
Govan: I’ve been here almost two years, and I have had no issues with access to anyone in the industry. The industry, the crossover now. Video games are part of Hollywood, part of entertainment.
Q: Does that cross over into support?
Govan: Absolutely. Everything. Across the board. Any level you want, from attendance to events, to rebuilding the board. So you talk to people like Terry Semel. Or there’s also hybrid ones like Christopher DeWolfe, who’s a young guy who’s dealing with MySpace, but they are so plugged into the industry. We have the head of Activision video games, and they are all making major contributions. Actors are like artists of any kind, you can’t count on a schedule for a visual artist, a performing artist or an actor or an actress.
Borda: I have to say that within the visual arts it’s fortunate because there’s more of a tradition for that. Frankly, there’s a theme of collecting that runs underneath it, so they can acquire and invest. Whereas as the completely abstract output of a symphony concert, or opera, it’s different.
Govan: But they’re not collectors, most of these people are not collectors. They are about the family-public purpose of the cultural institution.
How do you serve
a global community?
Q: The arts in America have been torn, between creative ambition and the commercial imperative to be profitable. How are you attempting to balance those two claims?
Ritchie: I don’t define our decisions by one moment or one theater or one season. From the time I came here, one of the exciting things to me was that we had this broad canvas of three theaters. At any given time, we will never be all things to all people, nor should we seek that. It would diminish the best that we can do. So when questions like that come up, I say, “Time will tell.” When I look at our seasons, and the questions come up -- “Are you representing community? Are you representing the art? Are you representing the audience?” -- I look at it and say, “Well, look at our seasons.” From the time that I’ve been here, this theater has produced more world premieres than any other theater in the country [and] generating new work, not just developing, but producing and presenting. When you talk about a diversity, representing community, this theater has produced more diverse productions than any other theater in the country, in the time that I’ve been here. So we’ve fulfilled that responsibility to our community.
When you talk about education outreach programs, we reach 30,000 students a year. For us, we’re saying, “We’ve got to start learning some names.” We want a real contact. So yes, we serve 30,000, but are there 250 kids that we could serve across their entire education, career and really transform their life? Not just introduce them to the art but create artists themselves.
It goes beyond looking at an individual production or an exhibition and then a score card that you have to fulfill. Time will tell for all of us if what we are doing is good and right.
Q: What would you say serving the community means in sort of a globalized world -- especially in L.A. where the local is the global?
Ritchie: My feeling is this: that the rising tide floats all boats. The stronger the theater community is here in Los Angeles, the better it is for me. It’s not a competition.
Wood: The first responsibility is excellence. And then the next thing -- which I find fascinating, and I’m very optimistic that it can work in L.A. -- is that we can all look over our shoulders to make sure what we’re doing to achieve that excellence has a logical relationship to what’s going on elsewhere. So we don’t reproduce each other. I’m fascinated by the totality of L.A.'s cultural package. It’s a grid, it’s not a target. It has a lot more moving parts than any place that I have ever been.
Borda: When we make a decision here, there are two factors we weigh: excellence and innovation. And it is this global sense now. I mean, the kind of artists that we are all presenting don’t belong to any one country. They might have been born in China, but now they live in L.A. or they move to Chicago, or they live in Vienna.
Wood: Your advantage as a performance institution is that you can bring in any performance from around the globe. I’ve got a collecting policy that is very narrow. I think of the Villa as a center for comparative archaeology. So in the next couple of years, we intend to bring a great exhibition of Mexican antiquities, which we’ll show in relationship to Mediterranean culture. And we’d like to bring Cambodian bronzes, a great tradition of bronze casting from antiquity, in the context with classical Mediterranean arts. So there are many ways to get global, given our individual strengths and limitations.
Q: L.A. now is an international city, we all agree. How does the fact that we are trying to build a cultural destination in L.A. affect what you program or how you market your institutions?
Domingo: To serve the city, the state, I believe that we have to get together to establish something that will help the tourism -- we should initiate a festival. It could be a month or two weeks, three weeks maybe [with] special exhibitions, whatever could be done, with the Philharmonic, with the opera, and also, because time is a challenge, we could include a tournament of golf, or for the children to go to Disneyland. I believe Los Angeles should have a festival, which we should all do together.
Borda: I think with Gustavo coming, we are going to have a lot of opportunities. I think that Gustavo coming to L.A. is as big as the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. That seems like a shocking thing to say, but I think that it is true.
Unlike other cities,
L.A. is just learning
how to give
Q: Michael, you mentioned earlier the idea of a noncompetitive situation: Do you feel a competitive nature with other arts groups? Dollars, money, audience?
Ritchie: I don’t know if it would be true if I were in New York, say, where there are so many other theaters that were fighting for the same audience -- in terms of the numbers and the dollars. What I would say out here is that this is a very philanthropic city. I think they give because they support the idea of arts and culture. It’s not necessarily about the tax write-off, so I don’t find the competition among the institutions here.
Wood: The Getty is obviously a bit of an anomaly here. We’re not competing for money. We would compete for gifts of works of art, but we haven’t been very good at it so far. [Laughter.] I’m really excited about the possibility of a cooperation. I mean, New York can talk about it, but basically they turn their back on it. Our niches are very different here. It adds up to a total, but the parts are quite different.
The Getty is a great driver for cultural tourism, it staggers me -- 50% of our attendance [comes from outside L.A.]. And those people go on to other places. So we’re a good portal for that. I don’t think we’re the competition, quite the opposite. I need more families, and people locally.
Domingo: You know, many of our donors, they give to everyone. You know, the only thing is when you hear someone gives $50 million to someone. You [say], “Why is it not coming to us?”
Govan: It depends on what comes with it, though . . .
Borda: Because people do have specific interests, they sometimes give to many of these groups, or sometimes it’s because they like one art form or another. You know, when you had your opening, I was so proud of the opening of the new institution, what it meant for our city. We have a great relationship with the opera, and the better they do, the better we do. And I think in that sense it’s a very different thing here. You know, I worked at Lincoln Center for 10 years, and I can tell you that it’s very different.
Govan: I 100% agree that the general feeling is that it is very easy to work together as institutions, and there’s a lot in common and a lot of encouragement. I frankly think that is one of L.A.'s strengths. And we can continue to play on that -- whether it’s a festival or working together on education initiatives.
I think the other thing is that it’s a very philanthropic community that gives for the right reasons. However, there’s a long way to go.
Wood: More civic commitment. There’s not a civic initiative.
Govan: The big issue is that the pie can get a lot bigger, we’re still underperforming as a city, in terms of dollars -- private dollars into public arts. We have a long way to go -- and we can do it because we’re one of the most powerful, wealthy cities in the world.
Wood: I guarantee you, Chicago is giving more per capita than L.A.
Borda: It’s developing.
Govan: The pot can get bigger, but the whole thing is education: We all need to be inspiring and educating that community. Then we can raise the bar. The giving levels are low, compared to other big cities. I realized that about the museum, that in museums, in the visual arts, other than the Getty -- the Hammer, MOCA -- giving levels are low. And I think part of that is that they have to raise the ceiling. One of the things we’ve done is going on a campaign together -- we’re all in this together -- to raise the barThat will help every little institution, that’s the way it is anywhere: You’re riding on the coattails of the large institutions.
Borda: The philanthropy here is in a much less developed spot.
Govan: There’s opportunity. I think there’s a lot of people here who haven’t had the thrill of what it means to participate in cultural institutions. Most of us would say that the people who participate and give money love it. It’s a big part of the satisfaction of their lives. I’ve seen people now making major contributions to the museum, who up to very recently never [visited the museum].
Domingo: One of the most worrying things to know is how much you have to raise. The satisfaction to know that, yes, you’ve raised that money. But the moment you raise that money, it’s gone. And so someone comes and says, “Here, you have this extra $5 million, let’s see what you can do with that.” And I say, “We already spent it.” [Laughter.]
Borda: It’s amazing, that sense of vista here, that sense of possibility
Govan: It’s so exciting to know that there are so many people here. I did not feel that in New York. I generally felt that anyone who was a potential supporter was more or less identified, self-identified, identified by friends, part of a network, and then it was mining the network. Here, it’s completely open.
Q: Do you see particular communities, whether it’s geographical or other communities, that you feel are untapped here, or not tapped enough?
Govan: All of them.
Wood: I think it’s a great source of identity.
Govan: I think there’s a huge, huge growth potential. I think that curve, I’m not sure has an end.
Ritchie: But I think it’s part of the maturity of the city. This conversation isn’t happening in New York right now, the New York Times is not bringing together arts leaders to say, “Where does culture fit into this city?” It’s not a question; it has been long determined there, whereas it is being determined here.
And so it goes back to “Why did you come here?,” the first question we were asked. Because something is happening here, and everybody is discovering it together at the same time. And that’s part of the excitement -- of what’s going on here. Not only of what’s being created, but the support that’s coming behind it and how it is beginning to identify this city. It is at the highest level of arts and culture, it’s just coming to its maturity, and it’s starting to stake its place, it’s starting to plant its feet, and saying: “We’re here.”
I think that’s why a lot of us were intrigued by moving to Los Angeles and, as we were going through the thought process, became more and more excited. [To Wood] For you to say that you can’t imagine being anywhere else at this point of your life is a major statement.
Q: How do institutions here get people to come to the Getty and elsewhere when they come here to visit Disneyland or Sea World?
Wood: The Getty is a very interesting destination. People shouldn’t talk about the “Bilbao Effect,” they should talk about the “Getty Effect.” It’s remarkable -- its site, architecture, extraordinary gardens and remarkable collections. But what motivates most people to come visit? Most probably don’t start with the collection, fine as it is. It varies for different groups. In some ways, the further you get from L.A., the more you want to see it in its totality. I’m not sure it’s reproducible.
Q: But how do you work together to help more people coming to the Getty also see a play or go to the opera?
Wood: I think it’s awareness. And newspapers do help with that. Part of it is awareness, targeting. People come for one [thing but], are there really other things they can do? If you are really determined to make the Met in New York, you book a hotel on the Upper East Side, you spend three days, and you go to the Met, you know, three different days. Here, book a hotel anywhere, get a fast car and you’ll see the wings of the Met, but it’s going to be in a 30-mile radius. It’s just a different mind-set. Which is a little foreign, particularly to New Yorkers, but it’s quite doable.
Govan: Yeah, there might also be possibilities, I mean, Placido, your idea about a festival, whether we could do it once a year, I don’t know. But I think we could potentially collaborate in a more concrete way, either by some thematic coherence and a little bump up in energy at a particular time and develop a calendar rhythm that could just focus a little more attention. We’re all skeptical sometimes of festivals because of what they cause in terms of all the extra work and having to work around them. But it is possible that we could do something.
Domingo: The “Ring Cycle” maybe could be the time.
Borda: The issue is we need to plan for that, because our institutions need to plan. But this is very good. Maybe this will be the excuse that brings us together
Q: How often do the arts leaders in Los Angeles get together? Do you ever get together?
Ritchie: How long did it take you to get us all here? It took 40 e-mails . . .
Q: So who do you see taking the leadership on something like a festival? Is it Placido and the opera? Is it the city? Is it the mayor? Who would be responsible?
Domingo: I think we all have to decide to do something important, and that in any case, we’ll always have important programming. If we can make a good package with everything, we can have a lot of publicity and many people participating.
Borda: If this group is united in trying to do something like this, then the county and city should do this. We have departments of tourism, and I really don’t know what they are focused on, except getting people to Disneyland. I think we’d need to form partnerships to be able to do this. I was thinking it would be great for this group to meet on a regular basis.
Govan: The interesting thing is that, strategically, you couldn’t do this in New York. All the big institutions -- the opera, obviously the museums -- none of them could ever collaborate on a big event like that because they are all too big. We actually could cross the communities, and if you actually crossed the communities here, it would probably be the most prestigious and interesting group in the world. One event, or something like that, every two years, to kick off the festival. It would be the most prestigious, influential group from theater to whatever.
Leadership opportunities on education initiatives
Q: Besides a big event like that, a really large-scale collaboration, are there any other things that you could envision?
Borda: I think this group is very artistically independent. I think it’s how we leverage the intellect, and how our institutions do really effect a different goal for the city, a different place. I think that’s the power of the group.
Wood: I think one of the great challenges in the visual arts community is that the collections are not in totality, are not being made the most of. Maybe that’s because you have more institutions, different pieces, different visibility, different needs to make the most of their own collections. And that through cooperation and creativity, I think there are some real opportunities.
Govan: The education thing is pretty interesting to me. I find among my donor base, most of them have as their chief priority: education. I didn’t find that, in New York. But the issue of education, and public education and kids’ education here is so huge and close to everyone’s heart. I wonder if we could leverage that somehow.
Why couldn’t we? Every piece of data shows arts in early education through high school has a hugely influential role in retention of students, the creative arts and even test scores. But no one is willing to try it, right? Among us we actually have a huge amount of influence. People who are our base are hugely influential. If we decided that we ought to press the agenda of an arts-based education -- since nothing else is working -- I wonder if it wouldn’t go somewhere right now. Is that crazy?
Wood: Maybe you start with charter schools. There’s an amazing charter movement in this city. Huge numbers. But they aren’t necessarily in the wealthy areas or even doing that much better, but they might be much more open. I’m really nervous about tackling the education bureaucracy.
Borda: We actually just went through this. And I have found it is very, very discouraging dealing with the large bureaucracies. But maybe this group could do it.
Govan: But the calls are already being made to the people who are making decisions. All the time. It’s sort of eerie how close you feel in L.A. to the actual decisions being made in those bureaucracies.
Just for the hell of it, we did this project that we took over Charles White Elementary School by MacArthur Park, that has an art gallery. I said, “We’re going to take some art and actually open the collection.” We brought some ancient art and Modern art and kids art, and we made an art museum in MacArthur Park. And it was fantastically successful, and the kids took pride in it. And I was thinking, “L.A. could have that image, right?” We could try. The bureaucracy isn’t that big here. It isn’t as big as New York.
Borda: I think we all have to be involved. I think there are ways to get it done.
Govan: As a private venture? I don’t know. It is the city of the future, right? That’s our tagline: city of the future. Every one of us has talked about the kids and our role, how to educate. We also talked about America’s general problem, vis-a-vis Europe. That is, culture is part of daily life in Europe in a way that it isn’t here, and maybe we could establish that new place. I don’t know, is that crazy?
Borda: No, I think it’s worth talking about.
Govan: And we have leaders. Gustavo. And [to Domingo] you’re an amazing spokesperson. I mean, I think between people like that, who can speak, and use media. . . .
Borda: You know, they did a show on Gustavo on the TV show “60 Minutes.” I was in Berlin, and the next morning I got up and had close to 80 messages from around the world, including Los Angeles. And we could leverage people like Gustavo and Placido.
Govan: Yeah, I think the two of you alone, with a campaign and us behind you, using media and taking advantage of our friends in the media. If we wanted to get something done, why couldn’t we get something done?
Domingo: That’s just like what I was telling you before about education: There are so many times our donors won’t give money to the opera. But if you mention education, “Whatever you need.”
Borda: Money for turning on our lights, forget about it. Money for education, OK.
Govan: I know. If one more person says, “I wanna do something. I’ll give, but I want it to be unique -- I want it to go to education.”
But we all know that we are educational institutions. It’s not that we have educational programs, we are education.
Wood: We’ve just redone our mission statement. It’s short, but: “further knowledge and nourish critical seeing.” It is an essential attempt on our part to focus all of these different things we do from conservation to research, to collecting, to presentation, and it comes down to an individual work of art. I’ve been trying to move our mission statement a little away from the umbrella of education, toward a more specific type of education, that includes seeing -- and we like the words “critical seeing.”
Govan: There is this misconception that education is this program “in addition.”
Borda: It is interesting that it’s seen as this sort of “add on” to the side. We had a separate education department, and one of the first things I did was take the education department and integrate it into the artistic department. Education is not just about young people, but it’s about your audience, the audience itself.
Ritchie: We did the same thing. It’s adult education in a certain way.
Q: Since you are all from other places, at various times, what you are finding, in terms of programming?Do you present differently in Los Angeles? What works in L.A. that wouldn’t work in New York? Do you find that you program for the city itself?
Borda: We take what we believe in and we do it. Then we take it to New York and then go, “Wow.” Like our “Tristan Project” -- that was completely an L.A. project with L.A.-based artists.
How to define
an ‘L.A. audience’
Q: Michael, do you think the audience here is different in any way?
Ritchie: If you are talking about the pure theater audience here, they’ve had world-class theater for at least 40 years. But this audience is sophisticated. Plus, this audience, in terms of a theater-going audience, is also an audience that travels a lot. I am consistently surprised by how much arts and culture this community gets outside of Los Angeles. They travel specifically for it. I can’t tell you the number of audience members that come up to me and say, “Hey, have you seen X?” So, no, I don’t think we program for this audience. I think that if it becomes a check list, that’s wrong. You produce stuff that’s the highest level in quality and you presume that it’s world class, so that it belongs here.
Wood: An advantage in the visual arts might be -- I mean, I can’t take credit for this because this was organized before I arrived -- was the icons from the Sinai. Qualitatively excellent, wonderful. The Getty was one of the few institutions that probably could have done it because it required lots of conservation work. But then it turns out that there was a huge Orthodox community that looked at that show in a very different way. There is a built-in community in Los Angeles.
Govan: That’s true, although I have to say, I’ve sensed from your programs more confidence about generating a local perspective. And if you look in the history of the L.A. County Museum, it’s a perfect example. For many, many years, L.A. County Museum just tried to be a smaller version of what East Coast museums were. I think that there’s growing confidence in all of our institutions -- you just think about the number of world premieres. Twenty years ago, L.A.'s cultural institutions were quite conservative in that they were trying to take things that were elsewhere -- things that were already verified elsewhere. And now there is a great interest in just being able to do things that originate here and have this adventurous spirit, which comes with confidence.
Borda: Do you ever worry sometimes that there’s too much time spent comparing ourselves to the East Coast, and that sort of bothers me.
Govan: We’re doing it less and less and less.
Ritchie: And comparing more favorably.
Govan: We’re doing our own thing, out of our own material, our own drive.
Ritchie: And we’re not trying to make a Music Center that looks like Lincoln Center.
Domingo: I believe that maybe that attraction of Los Angeles is that it is a young city culturally, unlike New York or Chicago. The people are so enthusiastic, and they really are ready for everything so you can be more daring. You can dare a lot more when you plan your programs. Sometimes people, if you put on a traditional opera and something that isn’t so well known but is very well cast and is a very exciting production, they will come easier to that. So according to your timing, you are not thinking what is happening in New York. You don’t even think what is happening in San Francisco.
Govan: I don’t think anyone does that anymore.
Domingo: Los Angeles is a special city. I think that we can dare. To commission nine world premieres, of course, you always have the advantage that they can still be part of a program and in that program you will combine other things. It is more dangerous in the operatic world that if we’re going to do a world premiere, it’s the whole evening.
Borda: But you take our Concrete Frequency festival, that we had -- that was hard-core contemporary listening. Or take Minimalist Jukebox. These are programs that worked very well together. People came to them.
Q: How do you get your message out there?
Govan: I tend to find the support groups very media-savvy because they are involved in, obviously, the Information Age and the Internet community and all of that. They understand multiple means of distribution. There’s also a great awareness in Los Angeles, for obvious reasons, of production value.
Domingo: One of the big problems of having really one important newspaper in the city is that, for instance, if you are in London doing a production, you have six, seven, eight newspapers that are all interested, so you can have a lot of promotion going on, you can have a lot of interviews going on. So logically, the Los Angeles Times has so many things to cover, to get the amount of promotion and publicity that you want to give to something is very difficult.
Borda: But it’s about taking time to rethink how we reach our audiences. So, for example, we just recently added podcasting to our website. Traffic is a problem, so now there’s a way, if you are driving and you are not going to get here in time to hear the Upbeat Live lecture we do before the concert, you can listen to it in your car. In the old days it was the newspaper and the classical music stations, but it’s just not that anymore.