NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman visits Watts Towers, Willowbrook

Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and a big baseball fan, spent Thursday afternoon in two poor South Los Angeles neighborhoods, Watts and Willowbrook, playing the arts-funding equivalent of small ball.

“Small ball” is a scrappy and opportunistic style that some major league baseball teams use to score runs when they can’t afford star sluggers who can win games with one big swing.

At the NEA, a parallel to small ball is Our Town — a new, $5-million-a-year initiative that Landesman, previously a Broadway producer, named after a landmark Thornton Wilder play that reliably packs a big emotional wallop without requiring much in the way of props, costumes or scenery.

The NEA has a $146-million annual budget — small ball indeed, by federal standards. Our Town grants fund arts projects aimed at spurring creativity, economic growth and social cohesiveness in neighborhoods.

Last year, the first round included $250,000 for Watts and $100,000 for Willowbrook. A like-minded new initiative, ArtPlace, guided by the NEA but privately funded by a consortium of charitable foundations, directed $370,000 to Watts.


Landesman trod Watts and Willowbrook in yellow alligator skin cowboy boots. He saw three sites where the NEA has placed Our Town and ArtPlace bets, and was briefed on strategies for making them pay off.

Perhaps he’ll be playing not-quite-so-small ball in the near future: President Obama’s budget proposal for the coming fiscal year calls for an $8 million increase for the NEA, with most of the hike doubling annual Our Town funding to $10 million.

“To me, it’s a great endorsement” of Our Town, said Landesman, whose agency had been cut $21 million, or 13%, since 2010. “The momentum’s starting to go the other way. An increase instead of a decrease, that’s very encouraging. Even miraculous.”

Artist Edgar Arceneaux, who leads the Watts House Project, narrated a slide show projected on a bare wall inside one of three closely clumped early 1900s houses on E. 107th Street, across from the Watts Towers, that his nonprofit group is renovating with its ArtPlace grant as a neighborhood center for meetings, celebrations, classes and artist residencies.

Landesman inspected several homes across from the towers that have been spruced up with help from artists and work crews recruited by the Watts House Project.

Rosa Gutierrez came out of her house — known as the Flower House because it has been painted with bright blooms and a green hummingbird — and told Landesman that presenting an artful face to the world has transformed relations with people visiting the towers.

Before, she’d stay inside when tourists came, feeling out of place on her own block, while they in turn seemed leery of the neighbors. Now her home is itself a vision, complementing the brightly decorated, nearly 100-foot-tall towers that Simon Rodia created over more than 30 years.

The message was similar at Landesman’s next stop, a few blocks away, where officials of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and its nonprofit partner, the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), described plans for channeling a $250,000 Our Town grant toward tourism-minded aesthetic and cultural improvements.

The grant will allow the arts to piggyback on a $1.1-million city street improvement project along 103rd Street, a leading thoroughfare through Watts. Design work hasn’t begun yet, but it will include outfitting part of the vintage 1904 Watts train station, which abuts a Metro Blue Line light-rail platform, as a visitors center that can orient arriving passengers to nearby attractions and let them spend time with an exhibit of model trains. Also envisioned, said Olga Garay-English, executive director of L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs, is an “artists’ pathway” of installations along the four-block walk from the train station to the Watts Towers.

The ultimate payoff, said Timothy Watkins, head of WLCAC, would be to generate a job-producing hospitality industry in Watts.

“This is a community that was known for a long time for its riots,” Rosie Lee Hooks, director of the city-run Watts Towers Arts Center, told Landesman as his walking tour ended at the Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center, next to the towers. But, she said, those who dig deeper will discover a legacy of strong visual artists, great musicians such as Mingus, and Rodia’s towers, which stand as a symbol of what a talented and determined person can achieve by sticking to a vision.

Willowbrook was Landesman’s last stop — for a slide show in a community room at the Martin Luther King Center for Public Health, where officials of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission laid out how they’re using a $100,000 Our Town grant. It’s covering the cost of planning a $1-million arts component for a huge, county-funded building project that will replace the nearby community hospital that closed in 2007 amid a scandal over substandard, sometimes fatal, patient care.

The county’s public art policy calls for a 1% set-aside for public artworks and cultural programs serving the immediate neighborhood of a county-funded construction project. Officials aim to take the creative pulse of Willowbrook, an unincorporated area just south of Watts. By involving the community and local artists, they aim to ensure that the $1-million arts expenditure meets the needs and reflects the character of Willowbrook and its 35,000 people — and is spent in ways that can resonate beyond the medical campus.

Laura Zucker, executive director of the arts commission, said that getting the NEA grant was like being staked at a poker game — over the last three years, she said, arts officials hadn’t had much of a voice in the hospital planning process. The money helped them to be taken seriously.

“It changes the conversation,” she said. “We found that all of a sudden, you’re not someone who just wants to tap into their assets” — the arts being perceived as a freeloader aiming to turn the discussion toward aesthetic and cultural concerns that may not be high on other government agencies’ agendas. Being able to pay for its own planning and research, Zucker said, has made the arts commission a credible player in the planning, now seen by other agencies as augmenting rather than sidetracking the overall effort.

When his four-hour visit was over, Landesman, who’d never been to Watts, came away impressed with the towers — “wow” was his one-word assessment — and with what he’d learned about the neighborhood’s creative legacy. He said that “Watts is a textbook example” of how the arts can become woven deep into a community’s sense of identity and pride.