The art of opening doors

Special to The Times

This is part of a series of occasional articles observing newly arrived cultural figures as they seek to get the lay of the land in Southern California.


LATE IN the afternoon you might imagine that Olga Garay, the executive director of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, is primping for an L.A. Phil concert at Disney Hall, an art opening on Wilshire Boulevard or a premiere at the Ahmanson. Instead, she clutches the steering wheel and fights surface street traffic getting to San Pedro for a 6 p.m. appointment.

She's on her way for a tour of a shut-down former firehouse where her department plans to invest a little money. ("Just to warn you," the note on her schedule says, "it's pretty unappealing inside.") This is Garay's method for getting to know the complex shape of L.A. It's grass-roots, do-it-yourself and hands-on. Of course, having recently arrived from New York, where she was based for nearly 10 years, she needs a little help.

"On my first 10 days working here last year, I got so lost I was practically crying," she says, turning down the jazz station she normally listens to. Typically, this is a story she tells on herself, not the least embarrassed. "I got one of those GPS things and I told it where I wanted to go. But nothing happened!"

She continues, straight-faced. "So I called the emergency GPS number and spoke to this guy," who couldn't believe she was talking to the device. She throws back her head and cackles: "I'm like a mental midget!"

While Garay may need briefing on new technology, she's a quick study when it comes to what is happening in the world of arts and culture. The self-deprecation masks her thrill at the challenge of putting the city of Los Angeles front and center in supporting, promoting and underwriting the arts. Being outgoing and gregarious, she has the temperament for a job that requires frequent public meetings and encounters with new acquaintances.

The Performing Arts Firehouse in San Pedro is emblematic of Garay's priorities -- supporting disparate grass-roots arts communities, being strategic with limited and shrinking funds and enabling greater access and usage of the city's various facilities.

"I'm trying to be responsive on the ground to what the community and the artists are telling us and what the City Council members are saying," she said earlier over lunch in Venice when she had reverse sticker shock ("I thought I was going to get a little salad. This would cost $20 in Manhattan!").

L.A.'s port community, with its mix of Croatians, Italians, Latinos and African Americans, is the kind of place where Garay, 55, of Cuban descent, is comfortable operating. Wearing a tan leather skirt with matching jacket, she gingerly steps through the moldy rooms, escorted by Lee Sweet, a Cultural Affairs staffer. By spending $24,000 for repairs, kids can once again work with Double G, who teaches symphonic hip-hop with a 70-piece group. Or they can play percussion, keyboards, guitar and violin with instructors from Music LA. The firehouse will return as a safe haven for doing homework.

"Can we do wireless?" Garay asks. Perhaps she knows more about the computer world than she lets on.

Expanding the community

Officially, the goal of the Department of Cultural Affairs, formerly under the direction of Margie Reese, is to generate and support high-quality arts and cultural experiences. "Our challenge," Garay says on the department's website, "is to be a catalyst for the delivery of art, culture, and heritage to every neighborhood in the City." With an annual budget of $28.1 million and a full-time staff of 74, DCA supports 16 neighborhood arts centers, five theaters, three historic sites and several galleries from Wilmington to Sun Valley. Continuing to spread its funds in small but strategic ways, as she intends, may put Garay at odds with others such as philanthropist Eli Broad. She says he told her to use the department's $3 million in annual grants to simply help fund the city's top institutions.

But the grass roots is where Garay is coming from and one reason Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hired her a year ago. In the mid-1980s she worked at the Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs Council in Florida, eventually becoming assistant director of the agency. The seeds she helped plant there are bearing lush fruit. At the time, there were about 100 nonprofit arts organizations in the Miami area. Now, in part spurred by government grants, the arts scene there is booming with about 1,000 arts groups, major new venues and spreading boho neighborhoods.

Before entering the culture field, Garay ran a literacy project in Florida for migrant farmworkers. She would send a street band into the migrant camps to play for the workers, and later, having their attention, start a reading program. "We used the arts as a means of getting trust built from the community."

As program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in New York from 1998 to 2005, Garay was responsible for giving away up to $20 million annually to performing arts organizations across the country.

Now that she's left the private funding community, she can look back with some critical observations. "A lot of friends who are foundation people, at the end of a month or a year, they think it's their money."

The West Coast operates differently from the East Coast when it comes to private funding for culture. Philadelphia, Garay points out, has major institutional supporters such as the Pew Charitable Trusts and the William Penn Foundation, just as Pittsburgh has Heinz and Mellon and others. "Los Angeles doesn't have that old money, that traditional money that can support arts and culture," she says, her charm bracelet of coins clinking as she gestures.

Getting connected

It's another day and Garay has a meeting with Villaraigosa, though she is not sure of the agenda. In the mayor's reception area, Ray Cortines, who at this time was deputy mayor and oversaw Garay's department, takes a minute to talk about Garay before going into the meeting, which includes the founder of the Music Center's Center Theatre Group, Gordon Davidson.

"She is good for us," Cortines says. "In the job interview she talked of local communities and the impact on youth. She believes in fighting for more money and is more than a breath of fresh air. She is candid and passionate, not just sensitive. And she's not shy."

The inner sanctum is decorated in dark-brown hues and there's a painting behind the mayor's desk by Robert Graham, an L.A. scene more ideal than surreal featuring an empty freeway. Near the mayor's desk is a child's drawing with the salutation, "To: Daddy/Mayor."

As it turns out, the mayor simply wants to make introductions between Garay and Davidson: "You should get to know each other -- it'd be important to take advantage of Davidson's credibility and standing in the arts community to figure out some kind of joint effort."

Davidson, no slouch when it comes to understanding the connection between resources and programs, asks about Garay's budget.

"It went down under (James) Hahn," Villaraigosa interjects. "He actually tried to eliminate Cultural Affairs, but I stopped that."

The discussion turns to philanthropic sources and how, like the city library, Cultural Affairs should set up a parallel nonprofit charitable organization to attract non-government funds. Efforts to do that are underway.

Not long after that meeting Garay was told, in light of the city's financial squeeze, her budget was going to be cut by 40%. "When I heard that I had a cow!" she says. "And I reminded Ray Cortines I hadn't unpacked my bags yet." Whether it was her warning or Villaraigosa's commitment to culture, the figure changed. Instead Garay's department faces a 6% reduction.

Garay finds Los Angeles vibrant and accessible. "I think there is more going on in L.A. than people give it credit for. It seems to be more open. In New York, you have to know people to get involved. Here, people are more willing to let you into their circle. It's more celebratory than it is in New York -- a more forward-looking spirit that says, 'I can make this happen!' "

Still, Garay hankers for the density and intensity of East Coast neighborhoods. She recently leased a condo in the new complex at Sunset and Vine. "The vibe is alive with pedestrian traffic and I can walk to the Hollywood farmers market."

Following the tour of the firehouse, she attends a concert up the street at the Warner Grand Theatre, also a Cultural Affairs property. This is a sold-out show -- the Evergreen Symphony Orchestra from Taiwan is making its North American premiere. The young women wear long dresses of evergreen velvet, their hair up uniformly in buns.

Councilwoman Janice Hahn begins by inciting local cultural pride: "Don't you love it that this orchestra is not downtown at Disney Hall or at the Music Center? But here in San Pedro at the Warner Grand Theatre!" Big applause.

Afterward, Garay follows through on a lead she picked up at a pre-concert reception concerning a state Assembly bill that would tax art sales and spend those revenues to benefit the arts. She wants to get Arts for L.A., an advocacy organization, involved. While walking back to her car she phones the director, Danielle Brazell.

"They hadn't heard about the legislation," Garay says on the drive back downtown. "For once I connected the dots." Although the legislation did not pass this year, efforts are underway to revise it and resubmit it.

When not in meetings, making presentations, or driving freeways she'd rather avoid, Garay can be found having dinner or socializing with friends such as arts activist Lyn Kienholz; Diane Rodriguez, associate producer at the Center Theatre Group; Philip Himberg of the Sundance Institute; or Josephine Ramirez, a vice president of the Music Center and a Cultural Affairs commission member.

For now, on the way home from San Pedro late at night, Garay is ready to get time to herself. "I refuse to read nonfiction on my own time. I want to read literature." On her night table in the apartment she shares temporarily in Silver Lake, she says, is F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Beautiful and Damned." When there is time, she plans to take up tennis again, and continue exploring the nooks and crannies of Los Angeles -- by foot if possible, but on the freeways if necessary.

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