by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif.
March 22, 2004
THE ARTS IN PERIL IN LOS ANGELES
LOS ANGELES -- This month, the administration of the city of Los Angeles threatened to close its own Cultural Affairs Department in order to save money, despite the fact that the entire CAD budget is less than three-tenths of 1 percent of the total. Artists, CAD bureaucrats and other sympathizers promptly raised a spirited defense and this week, the mayor capitulated. CAD is not to be demolished, at least for now.
It was just one brief skirmish in a wider battle which involves the state budget deficit and how that deficit is rolling down hill onto the cities, but it demonstrated in microcosm something about the new power of the internet in politics. It also demonstrated, or perhaps we might say confirmed, something about how the artistic media is treated in this society.
The Cultural Affairs Department has a budget which is slightly less than $12 million out of a total city budget of $5 billion. The department gives out grants to working artists, supports and publicizes cultural events, and operates a collection of cultural centers around the city.
The city has to solve a budget shortfall of about $300 million, in full knowledge that the state government is not going to come to the rescue. Los Angeles' Mayor Hahn is in something of a bind, because he has vowed to maintain police and fire services as the first priority. Something has to go, and that something will be a collection of services whose demise will not create life threatening results.
City department heads were informed of proposed cuts on March 3. The mayor's budget team, faced with cutting the deficit, proposed abolishing CAD as a city department and relocating some but not all of its functions to other departments. It became clear to the arts community that grants funding to working artists was at risk, even though that part of the total is only about $3.5 million.
With a little helpful information from CAD bureaucrats, the arts community organized itself and created an internet communications presence. The artists solicited letters and e-mails to elected officials. Meanwhile, the local mass media including radio and newspapers covered the story.
Faced with an organized opposition to what may have been a trial balloon, the mayor gave in and announced that he would preserve CAD as a working department. In what appears to be a face saving gesture, he announced that he is appointing a committee to look into how management practices at the CAD can be improved. This may be a useful process in its own right, but considering that the CAD budget is about 1 percent of the police budget, it is hard to imagine how even dramatic reform of CAD is going to have much effect on the city as a whole.
One thing that is noteworthy in this story is the remarkable speed that the opposition response attained. After the initial March 3 impetus, the response was quick and well-organized. One of the best descriptions of this is a story by Robert Greene in the March 19 edition of LA Weekly which is available online at the LA Weekly Website. As he describes, the arts community held an emergency meeting on March 9. There were briefings by CAD staff followed by organizing which included creating an internet based communications system.
In this way, outreach to arts organizations and other sympathetic members of the public was achieved within a few days. It was fairly wide ranging: I received an e-mail which described the danger within a few days after the meeting, even though I am neither a city employee nor a working artist.
The ability to create chains of communication to large numbers of people within a very few days using e-mail is a new phenomenon in our political universe, made famous (if less successful ultimately) by the Dean campaign a few months ago.
Whatever else we may learn from this campaign to save CAD and analogous efforts, it is clear that rapid communications by e-mail and internet sites are now becoming a mature element in the political process. What they seem to be doing is allowing people with common purpose to find each other and organize their efforts orders of magnitude faster than was previously possible.
At the same time that the community of art lovers has achieved a happy result in saving CAD at least temporarily, the view is not nearly so happy when considered in the wider perspective. The fact that the arts come in for budget slashing first, is reflective of the low regard our society has for intellectual and artistic pursuits.
The attitude toward art was perhaps expressed in the worst way possible a couple of years ago when the administration of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art decided that its museum building were not sufficiently attractive. (The buildings in question, really not all that bad, were used to good advantage and can be seen in the feature film Miracle Mile.) The decision was made to tear all its building down, right to the foundations, and rebuild, at a cost of close to $500 million.
It is depressing to consider an attitude such as this; it is hard even to find adjectives to describe it. I came up with pathetic, while a friend suggested nouveau riche. Parenthetically, it is interesting how little protest there was over the prospect, but apparently the donors and philanthropists who were supposed to jump at the chance to pay for the new digs instead voted no with their checkbooks and the project was abandoned.
Any society which wants to entertain the idea of doing half a billion dollars worth of construction on the steel and stucco that holds works of art, and then talks about killing off support for working artists to save two or three million dollars has some problems with its priorities.