Danielle Brazell: It is Time for a Bold New Cultural Policy Framework for the City of Los Angeles

Hear how arts leaders are envisioning the future in "Southland Sessions" S1 E1: Change(Makers) - The Future of Arts and Culture

Editor's note: The following article is written by Danielle Brazell, General Manager of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, an agency that provides funding for "Southland Sessions."

When I submitted my mid-year report to the Mayor in January 2020, the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) was making headway in expanding cultural access, equity and inclusion in the communities we serve. Our teams had launched the first phase of a Facility Master Plan with a priority list to improve our City's beloved community art centers, theatres, and historic sites. We were launching an online class registration program, as well, to increase access to our free and low-cost art classes and workshops. At that time, DCA was also advocating to expand our grants program to accommodate 22 new grantees into the pool. We were looking into the future, and we were in conversations with community stakeholders on how to prepare Los Angeles to welcome the world in 2028 for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. We were in forward motion and advocating for funds to support a new Cultural Master Plan that would advance cultural and racial equity through arts, culture and creativity in our city for the next twenty years. Little did I know that in just over a month, our world would change forever as a result of COVID-19.

The Safer at Home Public Health Order was announced in March, and the Department of Cultural Affairs shifted its short-term goals to respond to the crisis. We moved our operations according to our Emergency Operations Plan. Our Community Arts Centers pivoted to bring arts learning, exhibitions, and community forums online. Our Grants Administration team followed suit to ensure all grantees had the option of revising their scope of work to provide services online. We launched an Emergency COVID-19 relief fund in collaboration with Community Partners and helped 350 artists through a $290,000 allocation utilizing funds from both the City and outside support. Our Public Art team developed a new strategy to keep artists working by increasing the number of commissions to artists. The required pre-approved vendor lists for mural artists and mobile providers were established, and our Public Art team responded to council actions to deploy Arts Development Fees for COVID-19 relief to artists and cultural organizations. Our Marketing and Development team launched DCA at Home, a portal for people to access online arts, cultural and creative experiences produced by DCA and our grantees, and launched an extensive Resource Guide for artists and nonprofit arts organizations looking for relief and assistance.

Music lessons at DCA's Lincoln Heights Youth Arts Center | Department of Cultural Affairs, City of Los Angeles
Music lessons at DCA's Lincoln Heights Youth Arts Center | Department of Cultural Affairs, City of Los Angeles

We quickly realized the need for a new platform for authentic cultural expression of L.A.-based artists, musicians, dancers, and cultural practitioners during the time of COVID-19 and social reckoning, so we partnered with KCET to develop “Southland Sessions.” In doing so, we would go beyond an online presence to deliver free and accessible cultural television programming to more than 15.5 million households in our region. Our Department shares the same dedication to the arts as KCET, the desire to provide quality arts programming and elevate the vital role of the artist in our society, especially during this time, by building more public support for arts, culture, and creativity locally.

"Enchanted Servers" during the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs' "Current:LA Food" © Nari Ward 2019 | Panic Studio LA
"Enchanted Servers" during the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs' "Current:LA Food" © Nari Ward 2019 | Panic Studio LA

No sector is immune from the devastation, including arts and culture. For the nonprofit arts sector, COVID-19 caused the cancellation of all in-person arts and cultural events in the region, including more than 500,000 arts classes, community celebrations and cultural events that were to be provided and delivered by DCA. The arts sector is reporting massive layoffs and budget shortfalls due to the lack of access to Paycheck Protection Programs, Small Business Administration Loans, and other Federal Stimulus programs. It has become abundantly clear that in-person cultural gatherings will not safely take place until Spring of 2021 at the earliest. Due to the severe undercapitalization of this sector, our city is at grave risk of losing hundreds of small and mid-sized cultural organizations, many of whom are led by and serve Black, low-income and immigrant communities of color.

The civic outrage in response to the murder of George Floyd and so many other Black men  and women by some law enforcement officers has ignited a racial equity and social justice movement, unlike anything we have seen in recent memory. The opportunity for the United States of America to finally reckon with its past crimes against Black, Indigenous and other people of color is before us. For those of us working in the government sector, we must find a way to create a more perfect union with equity at the core.

Center for the Arts Eagle Rock's "Little Masters Exhibition." The center is a grantee of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA). | Center for the Arts Eagle Rock
Center for the Arts Eagle Rock's "Little Masters Exhibition." The center is a grantee of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA). | Center for the Arts Eagle Rock

I am encouraged by the new public safety framework favoring community services over enforcement. The transfer of resources for services geared toward empowerment is welcomed and long overdue. This shift would provide a unique opportunity for our city to double down on arts and culture as a foundational strategy. It also represents the policy mandates to operationalize Mayor Garcetti's Executive Directive #27: Racial Equity in City Government, accelerate our regional economy, and infuse messages of hope and resiliency during the pandemic and its aftermath.

While I am proud of the work we have accomplished, especially the adaptability of our dedicated staff, our Department’s resources are grossly insufficient to meet the growing needs of our communities. The virus has surfaced hard truths around structural racism, inequity of services, and health disparities in Black, Indigenous, and low-income communities of color. This inequity is reflected in the limited resources available for arts, culture and creativity from the public, private, and corporate sectors.

The City's funding of arts and culture is at grave risk, given the Department's reliance on a 1% allocation of the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) (also referred to as the hotel bed tax). By ordinance, the Department receives up to 1% of the total revenue generated from this tax based on an annual projection. However, funding for the Department was designed to have three dedicated sources: The City’s General Fund, (for operations, staffing, and overhead), TOT (to support festivals, programs, and grants); and the Percent for Art Programs (to commission world-class permanent and temporary public art). General Fund allocations were eliminated during the last great economic downturn.

As the City's official Local Arts Agency, DCA has a commitment and a mandate to serve both residents and visitors of our region by providing inclusive and high-quality arts and cultural services, especially in times of crisis. Equally important service delivery models guide our work with equity, access, diversity, inclusion and excellence as our guiding  principles, allowing DCA to serve:

●      Over 500,000 low-income youth, seniors, and adults participate in art classes or attend exhibitions, and community events through our Community Arts Centers, Historic Sites and Performing Arts Centers;

●      Millions of residents and visitors who have access to free or low-cost cultural events through DCA’s partnerships with nonprofit arts, arts education and cultural organizations;

●      Thousands of diverse L.A. artists creating dynamic Public Art (murals, sculptures, and festivals);and

●      Promoting LA’s cultural offerings locally and globally.

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As we reimagine the role of the artist, we look to DCA’s community arts centers, performing arts venues, and cultural workers as essential components of a disaster service system responding  to an ever-growing national crisis. Delivering hope and reflection, uplifting our spirits and generating public dialogues, DCA’s employees serve as  that serve as catalysts for truth and reconciliation. Deploying our staff, expanding our services, and focusing our programs as part of our city's Disaster Service Worker System will transform our civic trauma into what makes Los Angeles a strong, resilient, and inclusive city. By incorporating arts and culture into our Disaster Service Worker program will:

●      Expand cultural resources in Black, low-income and immigrant communities of color

●      Commission dynamic new public art reflective of our civic values

●      Employ L.A. artists, cultural practitioners, and teaching artists and cultural tradition bearers; 

●      Stimulate the nonprofit arts sector and accelerate economic recovery

●      Advance racial equity and cultural sustainability through a new Cultural Master Plan

Even in the best years, funding for arts and culture in our city does not meet the needs of the communities we serve. It is time to expose this hard truth and build the support needed to focus on culture and creativity as a primary driver of racial equity, create healthy communities, assure key economic recovery, and build vital long-term sustainability. Below are four recommendations that can build the necessary creative capital needed to heal our city.


DCA has always provided services at the forefront of historically under-resourced communities by addressing collective healing, profound transformational change and breaking down racist belief systems through direct instruction in the arts, exhibitions and community-based programs. DCA’s Community Arts Centers and their dedicated staff serve as trusted ambassadors to some of the City's most vulnerable communities, especially during challenging and uncertain times. Re-appropriating a portion of the LAPD budget to this program ensures a well-balanced approach to community investment and our commitment to Black and Brown Angelenos.


Our City's Percent for Public Art Programs provide another opportunity to leverage the imaginative power of artists to inspire our city by creating public art reflective of our city's values. Modeled after the Depression Era Works Public Administration (WPA), DCA's Public Art Team has pivoted to expand candidate pools, pay design fees to more artists, and increase the number of awards. This strategy will engage over 100 new artists to create at least 33 new murals and 15 new permanent public artworks.


The financial impact on individual artists and nonprofit arts organizations is catastrophic. Cultural organizations serving Black and low-income communities of color are hit harder as a result of an over-reliance on public funding and disinvestment by traditional philanthropic and corporate support.

The direct employment generated by the County’s creative industries and the indirect employment they create through multiplier effects constitutes 16.3% of Los Angeles County’s total employment.

The workforce readiness pipeline for the commercial creative industries, nonprofit arts organizations employs more than 27,000 employees and contractors. They are the primary employer of arts workers and creative artists (musicians, dancers, visual artists, muralists, etc.).

Los Angeles is considered an artist supercity, with a creative workforce that straddles for-profit/commercial creative industries with the nonprofit sector. For example, a theater artist, musician, or dancer may also be a teaching artist, work part-time in a museum or work in commercial film and television production. Like many members of our most vulnerable communities, the creative sector workers often live gig-to-gig with little to no savings. In 2008, it was estimated that Los Angeles was home to over 2.5 million independent creative workers.

The City should follow other global cities by allocating a portion of our CARES Federal Stimulus funding to our nonprofit arts and cultural partners to ensure our cultural infrastructure survives.


Over the past five years, the Department has maximized services through effective strategic planning, implementation, and prudent fiscal management. However, as the city undergoes a radical transformation, a comprehensive strategic effort will identify new financial resources and develop effective strategies to ensure that arts, culture and creativity are supported equitably throughout Los Angeles.

This cultural framework will provide the necessary foundation to achieve the goals we all want for Los Angeles and our citizens. By investing in our neighborhoods through art, culture, and creativity, we will advance racial equity, maintain our regional cultural infrastructure, accelerate our economy and be ready to welcome the world in 2028. This is our moment to pivot and to change the course of history in Los Angeles.

Top Image: "New Shores: The Future Dialogue Between Two Homelands" © Julio César Morales & Max La Riviére-Hedrick 2019, during the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs' "Current:LA Food" | Panic Studio LA 

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