Los Angeles

Report: Arts For L.A. Election Pre-Forum

In partnership with Arts for LA
Arts for LA helps communities throughout Los Angeles County advocate for greater investment in the arts.

By Lyle Zimskind

Six candidates to replace Zev Yaroslavsky as Los Angeles County Third District Supervisor appeared at LACMA's Bing Theater on Wednesday night for a pre-election forum on "Culture & Creativity" hosted by Arts for LA and moderated by Franklin J. Gilliam Jr., Dean of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. The evening was pointedly billed as a discussion rather than a debate ("I mean, remember, we're arts people, right?" quipped Arts for LA Executive Director Danielle Brazell), and aside from a few very low-key snipes, few sparks flew during the 90-minute event in front of an audience of about 300 people.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors, whose five members are often collectively referred to as the "four kings and a queen," administers an annual budget of $26 billion, a tiny part of which is, Brazell pointed out, the largest county arts budget in the U.S. Unlike L.A. City, which of course has both a mayor and a city council, the County has no counterbalancing executive position that serves as a second locus of public decision-making authority or a check on the Supervisors' power. Each Supervisor represents a huge district population base of about 2 million people. Incumbents are rarely voted out of office, but county voters passed a referendum in 2002 limiting each Supervisor to three four-year terms, preventing the popular Yaroslavsky from running in the upcoming June 3rd election after 20 years in the Third District Supervisor's seat.

 Bobby Shriver | Courtesy of Arts for LA

Former Santa Monica City Councilman and Mayor Bobby Shriver (brother of Maria) was the only candidate on the stage who lauded Yaroslavsky as a consistent supporter of the arts in Los Angeles County. Shriver proposed that L.A. County needs to develop a comprehensive cultural plan to support and promote the arts here. "We need a broader conception of Los Angeles as a place of imagination, as the cultural capital of the world....I want to exceed New York or Paris or Shanghai." Shriver repeatedly touted the recording studio at the Pico Youth and Family Center in Santa Monica as the kind of participatory arts facility he'd like to see replicated all over L.A. County. He also mentioned that his wife is a former chair of the California Arts Council. "Arts people need to get tough," Shriver proclaimed. "You need to take full credit for what you're doing....You need to view your work in [a] hard-headed way so that when it comes time to cut the budget, no one dares cut your budget."

Before embarking on a political career in the California state assembly and state senate, Sheila Kuehl told the audience, she herself had started out in life as an actress. Seeing Porgy and Bess at the Ahmanson just the previous night, she remarked, had even inspired her to remember for a moment "what it was like to feel like an artist." Kuehl asserted that it's "very important that we establish in the minds of middle school and high school students, and in some of their experiences, that the creative industries are places where they can work, and the schools should definitely prepare them for that kind of work." She also emphasized the importance of "mapping" the arts assets in L.A. County's various communities. "Do you know everything [there is] to look at in east L.A? Do you know all the art that's being shown there, that's being created there?" Kuehl specifically stated, too, that she would seek to double the number of grants awarded to L.A. County artists and arts organizations.

John Duran  | Courtesy of Arts for LA

In addition to his 14 years on the West Hollywood City Council, John Duran serves as Board Chairman of (and sings second tenor in) the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles.More than other candidates, Duran emphasized the idea that arts and culture are an economic catalyst in Los Angeles and touted his own success in overcoming initial opposition among his own fellow city council members to achieve a quadrupling of the city's arts budget. Duran identified audience development as a significant problem faced by arts organizations in a climate where young people "think that American Idol or a reality TV show is art. They haven't been exposed to what actually exists out there." The arts non-profits need more funding, according to Duran. "Theater Row along Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood--they live hand to mouth. Small arts organizations surviving on 10, 15 thousand dollar annual budgets," Duran affirmed, "have just as much creativity within them" as large organizations like his own choral group, whose annual budget is $1.4 million.

In her years as a Malibu city councilwoman and mayor, Pamela Conley Ulich pointed out, she worked to establish that city's own new arts commission and build its new library. Previously an in-house attorney at the Director's Guild of America and the Screen Actors' Guild, Conley Ulich's primary issue is the "very disturbing trend to spend" money on political campaigns and the excessive influence of moneyed interests on our democracy. More than the school districts, Conley Ulich sees the libraries of L.A. County as the most promising arena in which the County has an opportunity to expose young people to the arts. "Let's be honest. L.A. County cannot control what goes in the schools [in various districts], but what we can control are the [County's own] libraries. We have over 88 libraries. Why aren't we utilizing those as safe places [for kids] to go after school and creating amazing art programs and workshops?. It's not just bringing programs into the schools--the schools close at 3:00." Conley Ulich also advocates expanding programs that provide underprivileged children and families with free access to performing and visual arts venues.

Danielle Brazell | Courtesy of Arts for LA

Outsider candidate Eric Preven acknowledged that the last elective office he's held was the presidency of his high school Spanish club, but stated explicitly that he's very serious about this campaign. An entertainment business consultant and television writer, Preven has frequently attended Supervisory Board meetings and observed that body in action as a private citizen with a critical eye. Preven lamented the increased costs of attending events at the Hollywood Bowl and other public venues in Los Angeles, which he declared to be "a disaster. It becomes an equity issue. What venues should we be building? The John Anson Ford [Amphitheater] is a lovely place, it needs to be restored and protected, but it should not become a $150 million extension of the fancy people's interests. We already have enough of those in Los Angeles." Asked by moderator Gilliam what he felt was missing from the public dialogue about the arts, Preven immediately replied, "Well, the public dialogue is missing. There are lots of ways to foster more civic engagement."

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Offering the opinion that "anything that's creative is artistic," environmentalist Doug Fay talked extensively about his own and his family's long history of devoted stewardship of the coastal waters in Los Angeles and Monterey counties. He also spoke of his strong opposition to the Supervisors' plan to build a five-story senior facility at the Oxford Rentention Basin Duck Pond and indicated that an arts center would be more appropriate for the site.

A seventh candidate, Rudy Melendez, did not attend the forum, but did provide written answers to policy questions posed by Arts for L.A.

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Top Image: Courtesy of Arts for LA

About the Author

Lyle Zimskind covers art and culture for Los Angeles magazine and LAist.com in addition to KCET Artbound.
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