Los Angeles spares city arts funding

The Los Angeles City Council unanimously shot down a proposal Wednesday that would have eliminated guaranteed city funding for the arts, after listening to often-impassioned pleas during a public hearing on cutting government services and jobs in the face of a municipal budget crisis.

The council also showed no appetite for a recommendation by City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana that would have erased the $4 million arts grants program.

Olga Garay, executive director of the Department of Cultural Affairs, said she would try to find at least $500,000 in savings in her current budget, as Santana has proposed. The council also decided to continue pursuing Santana's plan to shift operations at nine or 10 community arts centers from the city to private, nonprofit groups.

"I think it was really a heartening sign that our elected officials heard the message that the arts are important in this community," Garay said in an interview. She said the idea of more privately run arts centers -- the city would still own the buildings and pay utilities and upkeep -- doesn't trouble her.

The plan to do away with the arts agency's reliable funding was a major concern for Garay and arts advocates. Since 1989, the city has earmarked $1 in taxes per $100 of hotel room charges for the Department of Cultural Affairs -- money that provides virtually its entire $9.6-million budget.

Six council members, including President Eric Garcetti, made a written motion last week to repeal guaranteed arts funding. But it never came to a vote because the council unanimously decided it should be "received and filed."

That, City Clerk June Lagmay translated, is "a polite way of saying, 'Trash it.' "

Garay said the proposal hadn't been "thought through as carefully as it should have been, but I'm not pointing fingers. [Council members] are desperate to come up with solutions. They have a Herculean task."

The council heard from more than 30 speakers who decried the proposed arts cuts. Scores of others looked on in the council chamber, many sporting red stick-on badges provided by the Arts for L.A. advocacy group, which during the days before the meeting had led an e-mail campaign opposing gutting arts programs to help bridge a projected two-year budget gap of nearly $700 million.

Speakers warned that a city that claims to be a world capital of entertainment and culture would court widespread ridicule by eliminating arts grants and risk losing part of its civic soul. Others talked about the arts' economic benefits and their role in keeping youngsters out of trouble.

"People have stood up to say what L.A. values are," Garcetti said after the nearly two-hour public comment period. "It doesn't mean Cultural Affairs won't face some cuts."

Among those who stood up was artist Lilia Ramirez, clad in a white gown and huge white angel wings as "a homage to the city of Los Angeles."

"Art saved me," she told council members. "I was in the streets, I wasn't doing so good. Here I am today, giving love and light to everyone."

mike boehm@latimes.com

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