This month marks the 25th anniversary of the reopening of the Los Angeles Central Library after a cataclysmic fire and phoenix-like rebirth. It is also the 25th anniversary of ALOUD, the library’s landmark program of conversations and performances that has played a crucial role in reviving the image of the city center as a cultural destination.
The history of this forum for free thought and civil public discourse was absent from the anniversary celebrations. So was ALOUD’s founder and curator, Louise Steinman, the force behind more than 1,000 of its compelling programs, which encompassed visiting cultural and literary luminaries and talks on politics, string theory and the mind of the octopus.
Steinman and associate producer Maureen Moore had been unceremoniously fired on Aug. 27 by Ken Brecher, president of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. He replaced them Oct. 17 with a person he labeled the library’s “first director of public programs” — a title that rightfully belonged to Steinman.
With that hiring, the erasure of ALOUD’s spirit and history seemed to be complete, at least for Brecher. As an enthusiastic and frequent ALOUD attendee since its inception, I’m left with anger and ashes. After years of feeling proud of the all-embracing role it played in our community, I am ashamed of our city’s public library.
I’m not alone in my dismay. More than 900 people — including Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, Los Angeles Poet Laureate Robin Coste Lewis, Colm Tóibín, Marisela Norte and a host of others — signed a petition in support of Steinman and Moore and requesting transparency and accountability about the way they were treated. Brecher and the Library Foundation never acknowledged us. Perhaps they never valued ALOUD as we do.
I fell in love with ALOUD right from its start, but one program that exemplifies my passion took place in October 2007. The late architectural photographer Julius Shulman was in the library’s Mark Taper Auditorium to discuss his 70-year career photographing Los Angeles. At the end, he invited anyone to give him a call if they wanted to talk more; he said he was listed in the phone book. I took him up on this offer the next day and spent hours with him learning about the birth of architectural modernism and the role of his friends Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra and Rafael Soriano. ALOUD created that kind of personal interconnectedness.
“Visualizing Language,” an exhibition launched last year as a part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, was another example of the power of ALOUD’s vision. This groundbreaking set of public programs and amazing murals by the Mexican art collective Tlacolulokos celebrated L.A.’s Oaxacan community. It earned the library the respect of the local Latino community as well as international critical acclaim.
Steinman’s ALOUD created a recurring public space for open inquiry — a welcoming arena for curious and engaged Angelenos to convene to hear great thinkers. Free and open to all, it became our version of the Athenian agora where ideas are generously exchanged. As one of the co-founders of CicLAvia and Community Arts Resources, I have spent my entire adult life working to create a Los Angeles that I want to live in. I know first-hand what it takes to create a recurring and successful program like ALOUD. It requires a ridiculous amount of underpaid hard work, passion, dedication, genuine humanity, empathy and vigilance.
That’s what Steinman and Moore brought to the library and to all of us in the city. Yet the Library Foundation was dismissive when, after weeks of delay and a great deal of public outcry, it issued its first public statement on Oct. 10. “We … realized we needed to expand our reach and relevance in new communities,” it read. “We also recognize that Los Angeles has transformed over the past 25 years and we aim to continue to grow with this great city and be central to its diverse arts and culture.”
The insulting implication was that ALOUD had not been relevant, was not reaching new communities, and somehow hadn’t evolved with the city. It said that the current leadership knows better. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We have so few great public spaces in our sprawling metropolis. And Ken Brecher has, in one quick stroke, changed the library from a sacred site of learning to a battleground, threatening its support from the literary, intellectual and civic-minded community here in Los Angeles.
I no longer plan to attend ALOUD or other Library Foundation events as a result and will no longer make my annual (albeit modest) contribution to the foundation. I urge others to challenge the foundation’s actions as they see fit until it acknowledges its missteps and takes corrective actions.