Antonio Villaraigosa says the Department of Cultural Affairs won’t get the ax

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa doesn’t agree with a proposal floated by the city’s chief fiscal officer calling for eliminating government support for the arts as a way to address a $404-million budget shortfall, a top aide said Monday.

Miguel Santana, the city administrative officer, suggested saving $10.7 million by doing away with the Department of Cultural Affairs as one of three options for the arts included in a wide-ranging, 219-page memo he sent to the mayor and City Council leaders on Friday with his ideas for closing the funding gap.

The least drastic measure Santana offered calls for $1.3 million in savings while preserving all of the department’s current functions, which include making grants to arts organizations and individual artists, partially funding community festivals, and running a network of cultural landmarks and neighborhood arts centers and theaters.

A third suggestion was to keep just one of the department’s functions — overseeing the creation of public artworks funded by a law that requires private developers and government agencies to pay 1% of the construction cost for nonresidential projects to adorn the new buildings with public art.


In a brief statement late Monday afternoon, Deputy Mayor Aileen Adams and Olga Garay, executive director of the cultural affairs department, said that “we want to be very clear” that the idea of eliminating all arts funding came from Santana, who was appointed by Villaraigosa but works independently of his office.

Villaraigosa “understands the power and importance of the arts and opposes the elimination of the Department of Cultural Affairs,” the statement said, noting that the mayor had “received many calls and e-mails” on Monday as word got out about the memo Santana had sent to the mayor, City Council President Eric Garcetti, and Bernard Parks, who is chairman of the council’s budget and finance committee.

Villaraigosa is preparing his budget proposal, due April 20; the City Council will use it as a basis for its own deliberations on a spending plan.

Garay said Monday that Santana’s more drastic options had taken her by surprise. In preliminary meetings earlier this month with Santana and the mayor’s office, she said, there had been agreement that the “strategy” would involve about $980,000 in budget cuts from a department whose current core funding is $7.7 million.

Since 2004, when the arts budget stood at $11.8 million, the department has lost 35% of its spending power — not counting inflation.

Danielle Brazell, executive director of Arts for L.A., which has lobbied to preserve local arts funding, said she was confident that elected officials would agree that eliminating the cultural affairs department would be “draconian” and “unnecessary.”

“There’s a bigger values statement that needs to be put forward,” Brazell said.

“We’re an arts town, and I think the voters of the city of Los Angeles are going to get behind having a Department of Cultural Affairs,” she said.

The department, among the smallest in municipal government, had its share of rocky moments during last year’s budget deliberations — starting with a proposal by the City Council that would have taken away its chief funding lifeline, the 7% share of city hotel tax receipts that under existing law is guaranteed to the arts department. Arts supporters filled the council chambers during a budget hearing and succeeded in persuading the council to back away from the proposal.

Garay said that the preliminary arts spending plan that has been taking shape aims to limit her department’s spending to revenue realized from the tourism tax — which is projected to increase 14% from a year ago. However, the money would have to stretch to include some expenses now covered from the city’s general fund. That means basic arts grants may take a 20% cut, from $2.9 million to about $2.2 million. It may be possible to restore about $300,000 to grant coffers by using money from another source — money that developers sometimes pay in cash rather than commissioning their own artworks under the “percent for art” policy.

Also on the agenda is implementing a policy the City Council adopted last year to recruit additional private operators for government-owned neighborhood arts centers, augmenting an arrangement already in effect at a number of locations.