The future of the Downtown Art Walk, which draws more than 20,000 people to a monthly stroll of downtown galleries and nightspots and has been credited with helping revitalize the area, was uncertain Tuesday following a dispute among its top leaders.
The dispute broke out Friday with a message on the art walk's official website saying the walks had been canceled through the end of the year and that they would resume in 2011 as quarterly events. But then on Sunday, the organization's board of directors sent out a release saying that the next art walk would take place Oct. 14 as previously scheduled and that the group's executive director, Jay Lopez, had published the earlier announcement without the approval of the board.
The mixed messages point to a bitter leadership struggle over the direction the nonprofit art walk should take. Board members said in interviews that the 6-year-old event has become a victim of its own success and that the cash-strapped organization doesn't have the resources to deal with growing costs associated with security, trash collection and other services.
Despite the popularity of the event, not all owners of galleries and restaurants downtown agree that it is a success, with some calling for changes if it is to continue.
David Hernand, a lawyer who is chairman of the art walk's board, said that the event has "become hard to manage" and that the organization has received requests from the Los Angeles Police Department to pick up at least part of the tab for the growing police presence that is needed. The organization said it also has been asked to reimburse the Historic Downtown Los Angeles Business Improvement District for cleanup costs and additional private security incurred tied to art walk nights.
The LAPD would not release dollar figures associated with its services for the art walk. Organizers said that in the past, monthly total costs have varied but tend to be more than several thousands of dollars per art walk.
"The practical reality is we don't have the funds to pay what they want," said Hernand, who is a partner in the law firm Gibson Dunn. He said the art walk operates on a budget of less than $20,000 annually generated largely from donations, with a staff consisting primarily of volunteers.
Hernand said that the October art walk will take place as scheduled but the future is in question as leaders work out a sustainable plan. He also said there has been no discussion among board members to turn it into a quarterly event.
Lopez said he acted on Friday under the assumption that the board was going to disband.
Hernand confirmed that the board members discussed the possibility of ending the art walk, but said that they eventually informed Lopez that they were not. Lopez said that communication from board members has been unclear and misleading throughout his tenure as executive director.
As of Tuesday, Lopez appeared to be in charge of the art walk's website and social-media accounts despite the board's efforts to regain control.
Central to the fate of the Downtown Art Walk is how the organization will find the money necessary to pay for the LAPD's services during art walk nights.
LAPD staffing for the art walk consists of five to seven officers, plus eight to 16 unpaid members of the police reserve on top of the regular patrols assigned to the area, according to Sgt. Kris Werner, who has been in charge of the police detail for the event since summer 2009.
Werner said that he is concerned that as the art walk grows, police resources will become strained. He said the police deal mainly with public drinking and disorderly conduct and that the most serious crime over the last year was an assault inside a bar in February.
In the past, the art walk has attempted to remedy its financial problems by courting corporate sponsors, including Cadillac.
But so far, the organization said it has succeeded in attracting only small-ticket sponsors, many of them local businesses.
"The event is spread out, so it's hard to tell a sponsor how much visibility they will get," said Wicks Walker, a board member of the art walk.
Since it began in 2004, the Downtown Art Walk has experienced strong growth coinciding with the gentrification and revitalization of areas of downtown L.A.
The event consists of a free, self-guided tour of galleries located primarily in the Gallery Row area, which encompasses parts of Spring and Main streets, as well as areas in Little Tokyo, the Fashion District and Grand Avenue.
"On the whole, it's been a good experience and it helps the business aspect of my gallery," said Rex Bruce, director and principal curator of the L.A. Center for Digital Arts. "The artists like it because it creates an audience for the art. It's good exposure for us."
Brian Lee, the owner of Hold Up Art in Little Tokyo, said the art walk shouldn't be shut down, "but it should be better controlled. The city should have paid for whatever the problems were."
The influx of art lovers has been a boon to many downtown restaurants and bars, which have benefited from the increase in foot traffic, and for roaming food trucks that pack the streets for the event. But with the crowds has come criticism that the walk has devolved into a street party, with throngs of pedestrians clogging sidewalks and sometimes engaging in rowdy behavior.
Monica May, the owner of Banquette Cafe and Nickel Diner, said that her diner has been vandalized on art walk nights and that food trucks have left garbage in the area around the diner.
"All of this has sort of become Mardi Gras," she said. "And the great thing about Mardi Gras is it happens once a year. Not once a month. The neighborhood can't bear that."
Ilan Hall, chef and owner of the Gorbals, said that he has never felt unsafe during art walk nights. "It just feels like a festival, a busy city," said Hall, who was featured on the reality TV series "Top Chef." "The more going on, the more things need to be controlled, that's all — but that's nothing more than a blessing."
City Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes parts of downtown L.A., said that she is waiting to see what proposals the art walk board comes up with before moving forward. "With success comes conflict. We're all in desperate straits, including the city."
While the board figures out its options, the organization's leadership structure remains unclear. Hernand said the board asked Lopez to cease referring to himself as the group's executive director following his actions on Friday, but that Lopez has not formally resigned.
Richard Schave, a former executive director of the Downtown Art Walk, has been an outspoken critic of Hernand and the board, saying that the board has a history of acting with a lack of transparency.
He said he was forced to resign last year and that the board has failed to foster various downtown communities in support of the art walk. Hernand has denied Schave's assertions.
In January, Schave and his wife, Kim Cooper, received a cease-and-desist letter from Hernand, asking the couple to refrain from making "false and defamatory statements" and threatening legal action if they continue.
Staff writer Mike Boehm contributed to this report.