L.A. council seeks ways to spare city arts centers

The Los Angeles City Council scrounged for money Wednesday to help keep the city’s network of 25 neighborhood arts centers above water amid the current municipal budget deluge.

Among the most promising ideas: changing current law to tap into a fund of $5 million created by the city’s charging itself a 1% arts fee for every government-funded capital construction project.

Rules call for that money to be used to buy artworks for public spaces and to pay for new cultural facilities.

Councilmen Tom LaBonge, Ed Reyes and Herb Wesson, who make up the council’s Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee, proposed broadening the rules’ scope to include funding of arts center operations, and their motion could be taken up Friday.

If the proposal gets clearance from the city attorney, LaBonge said, the arts committee favors spending about $600,000 annually to ensure that the arts centers remain staffed.

That, he said, would buy officials a year or two to find private operators for seven city-owned arts centers -- instead of the attempt, approved by the council in February, to unload them by July 1.

Arts advocates have called that approach hasty and short-sighted. Currently, ten of the 25 city-owned theaters and arts centers are run by private nonprofit groups, some of which continue to have utility bills and janitorial costs covered by the city.

At the council meeting Wednesday, Olga Garay, executive director of the Department of Cultural Affairs, said her staff is set to dwindle from 70 authorized positions to 37, because of a combination of layoffs, a hiring freeze and early retirements.

The overstretched department faces an immediate crisis April 1, when seven layoffs mean that two art centers could close unless Garay can redeploy other employees.

“We are entering a very precarious time . . . in our ability to maintain even a modicum of services,” she told the council.

Garay said afterward that she and Councilwoman Janice Hahn would try to persuade the mayor’s office to allow one of the now-frozen positions to be filled so the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro can stay open. Wesson said that if no other funds can be found, he’ll try to tap an economic development fund to keep open the William Grant Still Arts Center in the West Adams district.

Hahn, whose district includes San Pedro and Watts, pledged $9,000 from a discretionary fund she controls so an art instructor at the Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center in Watts can stay on through July 1. The city attorney would have to approve the move.

Supporters of the Mingus and an adjacent adult arts center at the Watts Towers staged a rally Wednesday morning, protesting Hahn’s proposal that the centers be offered to private operators. By afternoon, she had taken them off the privatization list.

Speakers at the council meeting argued against cuts to the arts and libraries, saying they are vital not just for learning and public enjoyment, but in giving refuge to people in rough neighborhoods.

City Librarian Martin Gomez said that on top of the Sunday closings now contemplated, libraries may have to close two days a week after July 1 as his staff drops from about 1,100 to 800.

Maeve Reston contributed to this report.