Olga Garay-English will step down Jan. 4 after 6 1/2 years as head of Los Angeles’ Department of Cultural Affairs, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced Monday.
Since taking office in July, Garcetti has had department heads reapply for their jobs. His spokeswoman, Vicki Curry, said that the mayor and Garay-English, appointed in 2007 by former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, “mutually agreed it is time for a change of direction at the Department of Cultural Affairs. Mayor Garcetti envisions [the department] playing a larger role in our local economy and in promoting cultural tourism in L.A.”
But Garay-English said Monday that exiting was not her choice. “I asked to be considered for reappointment,” she said in an email. “However, I understand that the Mayor has a right to choose his own team.”
She said that she submitted a memo in July detailing her views on the department’s mission, accomplishments and goals – something Garcetti had requested from all department heads – followed by an Aug. 8 meeting with the mayor that lasted just under an hour.
Matthew Rudnick, the Cultural Affairs Department’s assistant general manager since 2012, will become interim general manager in January, serving until Garcetti appoints a new department head. Rudnick previously was a budget policy adviser to Villaraigosa. The general manager’s salary is $208,737.
In an email to the 40-member cultural affairs department staff Monday announcing her impending exit, Garay-English said “it has been an honor to lead the [department] and keep it on its course during the economically tumultuous period that I have been at the helm. I hope to continue contributing to the cultural community of Los Angeles.”
Garcetti’s announcement said that Garay-English will advise Samuel Hoi, president of Otis College of Art and Design, on the college’s annual studies of greater L.A.’s creative economy – Garay-English said it aims to expand to a statewide study -- and as an unpaid cultural advisor to Councilman Tom LaBonge, including the Sister Cities program he oversees that includes cultural exchanges between L.A. and foreign cities.
“Olga and I have a great relationship and she has tremendous skills,” LaBonge said Monday, adding that he didn’t know why Garay-English isn’t continuing as head of the Cultural Affairs Department.
“She has made a difference,” he said, including raising L.A.’s profile with national and international funders whose donations have helped the department pursue initiatives that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
Garay-English said the department had secured $23 million from private donors and non-local government grant-making agencies during her tenure.
“I’m sad to see her go,” said York Chang, an attorney and artist who recently submitted his resignation as president of the city’s Cultural Affairs Commission.
“All this grant money and partnership money she’s brought into Los Angeles, so much of it is based on Olga as a person. So much of it is about people’s personality and reputation, and she has the reputation as someone who follows through and makes things happen. That’s what we lose with her.”
Chang said that he and Josephine Ramirez, who oversees the James Irvine Foundation’s arts grant-making, will step down after this month as president and vice president of the Cultural Affairs Commission – an essentially voluntary job that carries a stipend of $25 per meeting. He said they both had personal and career reasons for leaving the mayorally appointed commission.
“It doesn’t have to do necessarily with [Garcetti’s] decision with Olga,” Chang said. “We’ve both been on the commission for quite some time, and it makes sense for us in our personal lives.”
Grants secured by Garay-English, whose family emigrated to the United States from Cuba when she was 8, include funds that helped plan a mixed-use downtown development called the Broadway Arts Center that’s envisioned as a housing site for artists and a new home for California Institute of the Arts’ graduate theater programs.
Garay-English said she hopes the Cultural Affairs Department will continue to help with its planning, but that funds to build and staff the center will have to come from private sources.
“Olga has done a great job at leading a department that has been severely under-resourced over the past 10 years,” said Danielle Brazell, executive director of the advocacy group Arts for L.A.
Brazell said her organization doesn’t take a position on personnel decisions such as Garay-English’s departure, but “we can communicate the value of having a significant, well-known expert” succeed her. “A city of our size and stature needs to have a pretty strong leader.”
Garay-English’s credentials before her appointment in 2007 included eight years heading the arts grant-making program for the Doris Duke Foundation, a leading national performing arts funder, and consulting work and independent theater producing on the New York City arts scene.
An immediate priority, Brazell said, is ensuring that initiatives begun under Garay-English, including the Broadway Arts Center and an effort to develop Watts’ potential as a destination for cultural tourism, don’t get stalled during a transition.
Outside grantmakers whose help will be needed “can get really fickle when there’s a change in leadership,” Brazell said. “The question is who’s going to be shepherding projects that are in the pipeline?”
Garcetti’s arts policy will become clearer when he proposes his first budget as mayor next year. The current core funding for the Cultural Affairs Department -- covering its grant-making, administrative salaries and supplies and publications -- is $8.96 million, down 27% in 2013 dollars from where it stood in Garay-English’s first year on the job. The staff has been cut by half, from 81 when she arrived.
About $3.9 million goes toward grants for artists and nonprofit arts organizations and for community festivals; the rest is for salaries and supplies. Besides the core arts budget, the city spends about $6.5 million for the department’s employee pensions and benefits, utilities, building maintenance and other related costs.
The departmernt’s core operations are funded strictly with money generated by taxes on hotel rooms. In his final budget last year, Villaraigosa proposed a 33% spending hike to $10.7 million, which would have included tapping the city’s general fund for $1.75 million. But the City Council, with Garcetti then its president, OKd only an 11% increase requiring no general fund expenditures. Without general fund help, L.A.’s arts budgets rise and fall with tourism and whatever grants the department can secure.
Garcetti’s maiden budget proposal as mayor early next year will begin to reflect how much emphasis he puts on arts and culture, Brazell said. “I think a budget is a value statement and that value statement will set the tone for how our city is going to invest in our creative [sector].”