An ambitious downtown center created to celebrate the role of Mexican Americans in Los Angeles culture and history opened with great fanfare six months ago, fueled by more than $36 million in public funds and boasting a prominent board of directors.
Today the center, La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, is staggering. Its chief executive was let go in August, and he's accused of mismanagement. Attendance has been sparse. The private foundation set up to run it hasn't raised much money. Contractors complain they haven't been paid. And the staff has been slashed from 28 to 12.
The concerts, lectures and other special programs once envisioned were rare, until two events last weekend.
"La Plaza has gone through an unbelievably painful birth," said L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, the center's primary backer. She remains optimistic but added: "It's not going to be easy."
Molina said that she and others on the foundation's 12-member board learned in June that the organization was in financial difficulty after a vendor called her to complain that he hadn't been paid.
An examination of the foundation books by Molina's staff pointed to mismanagement by Miguel Angel Corzo, a veteran arts administrator who had run La Plaza since August 2009. Molina said Corzo had problems "following protocol and board directions." She declined to elaborate.
Corzo's two-year contract was not renewed. Unable to pay the remaining staff, the board laid off 10 employees and let four others go when their contracts were up.
Maria Teresa "Terry" Munoz, formerly of the city of Los Angeles' chief administrative officer's staff, has been brought in to oversee daily operations.
Corzo has not responded to phone messages seeking comment. He earned $203,687 in 2009-10, according to the La Plaza Foundation's most recent tax return.
Corzo previously was president of L.A.'s Colburn School of Music but he left in 2008 after just over a year in the job. Molina said executive search consultants told the board that he had left Colburn because of a personality conflict and not performance issues.
His work history included a seven-year stint as president of Philadelphia's University of Arts and, in the 1990s, he was director of the Getty Conservation Institute.
Molina vowed that La Plaza would remain open. The county has budgeted $1 million this year to cover maintenance, insurance and utilities; La Plaza needs to generate about $400,000 more to meet its expenses, Molina said.
The La Plaza Foundation was having fundraising difficulties long before Corzo arrived. An ambitious $50-million campaign was announced in 2004. By mid-2011, with the project greatly scaled down from what was envisioned, private donors had contributed only about $1.5 million, according to the foundation's tax returns and more recent figures provided by La Plaza. While the high-priced April gala took in an additional $1.1 million, Molina said expenses were not well controlled, and the $345,000 net return was disappointing.
Former Congressman Esteban Torres chairs La Plaza's board. Other members include Antonia Hernandez, director of the $1.1-billion California Community Foundation; actress Eva Longoria; former Los Angeles County Museum of Art Chief Executive Andrea Rich and Miguel Santana, chief budget officer for the city of Los Angeles.
To date, Los Angeles County has allocated $18.25 million for La Plaza construction and expenses, county spokesman David Sommers said. Molina says an additional $14 million has gone to the foundation from her county discretionary funds. La Plaza's construction also involved more than $3 million in state and Metropolitan Transportation Authority bond revenues.
The county paid most of the $27 million to rehabilitate two county-owned buildings that house La Plaza's offices and exhibition space. A $10.1-million project, funded by the foundation, added an outdoor garden, walkways and a covered stage. Molina said some of the construction bills have not been paid, though.
La Plaza has recorded only 4,052 paid admissions since opening. Its Facebook page shows that, other than a Cinco de Mayo Festival, months went by with virtually no public events. An author and musical gathering Saturday and an art restoration discussion Sunday drew 150 people.
Coming events include an Oct. 16 screening of Cantinflas films, November and December installments in the "Cuentos del Pueblo" discussion series, and an as-yet unspecified Dec. 17-18 event in connection with the region-wide Pacific Standard Time arts festival.
Last week, the board hired Melody Kanschat, the former president and chief operating officer of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as a consultant to figure out what went wrong and how to correct it.
Kanschat said she will develop a "plan for stabilization" that includes assessing "what each board member thinks and their capacities for being more involved." She also aims to establish fundraising "benchmarks" to meet in the coming year.
La Plaza did achieve a fundraising breakthrough recently, with PepsiCo's announcement that it will donate $1 million over three years to launch programs centered on gardening, Mexican cooking and health and nutrition. Molina hopes it's the start of a stream of gifts that will enable the site to thrive.
"Every institution goes through leadership changes," said Santana, the city budget officer and La Plaza board member. "This is just a pause, a comma in the history of this place."