The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's new role as conservator of the Watts Towers has brought an almost immediate payoff: a $500,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation, announced Wednesday, to help fund repair and preservation of the landmark folk-art masterpiece.
"We're thrilled," said Olga Garay, executive director of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, which manages the towers and recently struck a trial one-year agreement with LACMA for conservation and help with promoting the towers to prospective visitors and funders. Before the grant came through, only $150,000 in city funding had been budgeted for the towers this year.
The Irvine Foundation has averaged $20.4 million a year in arts grants since 2008, but it normally doesn't fund art conservation projects, its president, James Canales, said Wednesday. "The motivation for this grant is that we see Watts Towers as an important cultural icon for Los Angeles" — one that dovetails with the foundation's interest in community-building and helping "underserved" Californians.
Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant stonemason with little formal education, worked solo for 33 years ending in 1954 to plant the triple-spired, nearly 100-foot-tall creation next to his home on what's now a dead-end street. The city itself could not have secured the grant because the San Francisco-based Irvine Foundation, a leading funder of the arts, public policy and education for low-income youth throughout California, does not give money to government agencies. Although LACMA receives more than $20 million a year from Los Angeles County, and some of its buildings are county-owned, it is run by a private, nonprofit board.
Made of wire, steel and cement, and glittering with thousands of ornaments Rodia made from seashells, bottle glass and pottery fragments, the towers and their surrounding sculptural elements comprise a small fantasyland, shaped like a three-masted ship, that has spiritual and communitarian connotations. In Watts, which outsiders for generations have identified with urban blight, the towers stand as a symbol of endurance and of great achievements coming from unexpected quarters.
But they are exposed to the elements, subject to erosion, cracks and corrosion from moisture and temperature swings, and therefore require continual restoration work. By city officials' own rough estimate, the towers, which are owned by the state but operated by the city under a long-term agreement, would require about $5 million worth of work to put them in optimal condition.
Along with labor and materials, the combined $650,000 in grant and city funding will pay not just for immediate fixes but for analysis and planning aimed at determining which techniques and materials work best, then creating protocols for the towers' ongoing upkeep.
The last time comparable resources were available was 2008, when the city secured a $570,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repair damage from violent rains and hail that hit Watts in 2003.