Los Angeles

The Legacy of Zev Yaroslavsky

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As Los Angeles boomed in the mid 20th century, the region's arts and culture couldn't keep pace. There were moments, of course -- in 1964 Dorothy Chandler built the Music Center, an accomplishment that landed her on the front page of Time Magazine; and in 1984 the Olympic Arts Festival briefly shined a light on L.A'.s creative capacity.

In the past two decades something has changed, something more permanent and in scale with the immensity of the city that is the world's entertainment capital.

Perhaps it began in 1997, when the Getty Center opened; or perhaps in 2003, with the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall. L.A. has seen an unprecedented growth in cultural infrastructure, and one man is found center stage of this 15-year boom, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavky from L.A. County's Third District.

As Supervisor Yaroslavsky prepares to step down, his legacy in the arts is widely applauded. When asked for his own reflections, the Supervisor doesn't start with the major accomplishments, such as the construction of Walt Disney Concert Hall or the renovation of the Hollywood Bowl. Instead he begins with a story about his own piano lessons as a child; a time when he turned pages for his musician uncle in the orchestra pit of the Shrine Auditorium; and memories of sneaking down from the cheap seats at the Hollywood Bowl.

Upon taking office in 1994, the Supervisor turned his personal commitment to the arts into a 20-year mission. "Many of these projects were in my district. I adopted others," he explains. The first project he championed was one he adopted, in downtown's First District. "The $100M parking garage built by the County on the site that was to become Disney Concert Hall still sat stranded, and we were about to pull the plug on the concert hall. That's not going to fly. A civic project of this magnitude is important to our self-confidence."

In the decade since, the Supervisor's appetite for championing these massive projects never diminished. But he is not alone in these efforts. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors oversees one of the nation's largest arts portfolios. Budget allocations approach $100 million in annual operating support for County-subsidized organizations. Additionally, the discretionary projects supported by individual Supervisors and the new building projects require hundreds of millions more over time.

The County Arts Commission plays a supporting role, overseeing about $8 million, which includes the County's granting program as well as the operations of Ford Amphitheatre. Some of the County's arts monies are difficult to quantify, tucked away in various budgets such as the Parks and Recreation allocation that operates the Hollywood Bowl or the separate budget for Grand Park.

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The bulk of L.A. arts funding, however, is controlled by five County Supervisors, often called the most powerful locally elected politicians in the nation. "This is the fun part of the job, an area of possibility. Cultural strategy is an economic development strategy. It's all upside -- and there's no toxic clean-up site left behind," says Yaroslavsky.

About the candidates vying for his seat, Yaroslavsky is confident. "They are knowledgeable and culturally sensitive. No one can be an L.A. County Supervisor without recognizing the importance of arts and culture to our society."

At a recent forum hosted by Arts for L.A., six candidates stuck to this script. They spoke enthusiastically about the value of arts and culture in the region, from economic development to workforce training. The candidates were pressed to address specific issues, trends, and policies. Their answers were unsurprising. Many answers could be characterized as advice to arts organizations -- make your tickets cheaper, reach out to younger audiences, and diversify your programs.

Candidate Sheila Kuehl suggested support for the arts through greater cooperation between County agencies, from MTA to the convention and visitors bureaus. Bobby Shriver advocated for a comprehensive regional cultural plan. None of the candidates addressed the scale of the County's arts portfolio, nor the hundreds of millions of dollars they would be asked to allocate for annual operations and ongoing upkeep and renovations.

Yaroslavsky underlined this issue, "We are experiencing in L.A. the Golden Age of arts infrastructure. I know no place that has experienced so much building in such a compressed period of time."

Candidates Kuehl and Shriver, the leading contenders to fill Yaroslavsky's shoes, seem likely to provide ongoing support to the arts and culture. If, however, the growth of new infrastructure is cooling down, what's next?

Yaroslavsky offers one option, "The one missing link is arts education. It's unbelievable -- we've decided the arts are expendable." He brings the conversation full circle, back to his childhood in L.A.'s public schools. "My music appreciation class has far outlasted my trigonometry class. Mozart has lasted me a lifetime."

The County's arts high school, LACHSA, has become one of the finest of its type in the nation, but Yaroslavsky's vision for arts education is broader. "Arts and culture are an economic engine that employs more than the defense industry once did in Southern California."

Will Yaroslavsky's replacement usher in a Golden Age for arts education? Will the next Board support new programs in schools the same way their predecessors supported new cultural venues throughout the region?

Separately, is the County prepared to meet the self-perpetuating demands that large public facilities make on public funds? How will these buildings become sustainable? Is there sufficient audience to activate these spaces? Are artists and arts organizations able to ensure their future relevance? How can these buildings support equitable access for all Angelenos?

"There's been a revolution. L.A. is the hotspot of any city in the world," Yaroslavsky proclaims. Rightfully so -- he has played a key role in LA's transformation, improving the region for its residents and raising its profile in the world. But the work has only begun.

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Top Image: Zev Yaroslavsky | Photo: zev.lacounty.gov

About the Author

Thor Steingraber is Executive Director of Valley Performing Arts Center on the campus of California State Northridge.
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