Arts groups square off against City Hall and mayor

More than 7,000 people wrote to elected officials to save guaranteed hotel tax funding for the arts, and a similar push is planned on the more recent budget issues, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's bid to repurpose already approved arts grants to four groups he thinks would reach a bigger public.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

L.A. arts advocates are girding for two more battles at City Hall.

One is fighting Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s plan to take away $415,000 in arts grants from groups that qualified under the standard competitive application process, in favor of four that he chose.

The other is preserving rent-free use of city buildings by nonprofit organizations, including leases on 245,000 square feet devoted to the arts. The city council’s budget and finance committee voted last week to require nonprofits to pay at least half the market rate in rent, plus utilities and maintenance — potentially costing arts tenants several hundred thousand dollars a year.

The controversies spring from the city’s most tumultuous budget season in memory — a season in which L.A.'s arts community already has had to defend its turf repeatedly. In February, arts advocates filled the city council’s hearing room and e-mail in-boxes, successfully fighting off a plan to eliminate the Department of Cultural Affairs’ main revenue source, a guaranteed share of hotel taxes. In March, the issue was funding for neighborhood arts centers.


Now comes Villaraigosa’s plan to divert money to his four handpicked programs — part of a budget proposal that calls for a 24.8% reduction in arts spending. It has some wondering whether being well-connected at City Hall could become key to getting a city arts grant. And a the plan to end free use of city facilities by nonprofits — including at least 19 arts groups — has raised concerns that the added cost could put some out of business.

In light of these continuing struggles, which she calls the “five firestorms,” Danielle Brazell, head of the Arts for L.A. advocacy group, wonders whether elected leaders have lost sight of the social and economic benefits that underlie having a municipal arts policy.

“Are city leaders looking five feet in front of them, or are they looking to the horizon? Are we trying to build a greater Los Angeles, or are we trying to get through the day? Based on the behavior I’m seeing, it’s the latter,” Brazell said Monday. She wonders why, out of nearly $7 billion in city spending, arts items pegged at $10.9 million in the mayor’s budget proposal — down from $14.5 million — are coming in for such scrutiny. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The plan to tighten the city’s policy on the 900,000 square feet it leases to nonprofit groups has been in the works for several years and is not driven by the budget crisis, said councilman Bernard Parks, chair of the budget and finance committee. The point, he says, is to make sure such leases go only to groups that are effective and on sound financial footing. They could receive a 50% discount from fair-market rents, but only if council members agreed to cover the cost of rent breaks out of their district’s discretionary spending account.

Claire Knowlton, executive director of the McGroarty Arts Center in Tujunga, said that a conservative estimate pegs its costs from the proposed changes at $84,000 a year, or nearly a third of its current budget.

“It would definitely be a shutdown scenario for us,” she said, unless increases are phased in gradually over about five years. Otherwise, “I think the city will just have a lot of empty buildings on its hands,” “The nonprofits are in the same sort of bad situation as the city is.”

A preliminary study estimates the city would collect up to $1.5 million a year in rent on 94 properties. Arts organizations account for 19 of the sites, including the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary building, the Los Angeles Theatre Center, the Japanese American National Museum, Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, Plaza de la Raza and the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble.

Brazell said that more than 7,000 people wrote to elected officials to save guaranteed hotel tax funding for the arts, and a similar push is planned on the more recent budget issues, including Villaraigosa’s bid to repurpose already approved arts grants to four groups he thinks would reach a bigger public. The mayor’s picks: $250,000 for city-owned cable television station Channel 36, $75,000 for El Grito, a community celebration of Mexico’s independence, and $45,000 each to the Pan African Film Festival and the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival.


Brazell said the issue isn’t whether those groups are worthy, but whether the city wants to set “a very bad precedent for [funding] pet projects” rather than sticking to grants made through the application and judging process that has been in effect since 1988.

“It’s arbitrary …. It’s divisive,” she said of the mayor’s proposed departure. “It puts arts organizations in competition with each other, not based on excellence, but what kind of political relationship you can have with the decision-maker.”

Councilman Tom LaBonge, who chairs the committee on arts, parks, health and aging, said Monday that he wants grants decided by the existing process: “It should be decided by the panels … not by me, or any other elected officials.”

A spokeswoman for Villaraigosa said, “The mayor was the first to say that this was a very difficult budget and he looks forward to working with council to make it better.”


Letting panels of experts deliberate on grants is a standard practice for government arts agencies and many private foundations, said Tommer Peterson, deputy director of Seattle-based Grantmakers in the Arts, which helps its members — among them L.A.'s cultural affairs department — keep up with what are considered the best grantmaking practices. “The weakness of a single decision-maker is you have a significant risk of at least the appearance of favoritism.”