L.A. Cultural Affairs staff vents frustrations over cuts

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Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

Nanci Rossov said she's likely to be laid off as the Watts Towers Art Center is set to close as a cost-cutting measure. She attended a Department of Cultural Affairs meeting at which layoffs and other cuts were announced.

At a meeting this morning Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs managers told employees that the agency will enact serious staff and facilities cuts. The aim is to help L.A. city government close a nearly $500 million deficit next fiscal year.

The meeting – closed to the public – took place at the Barnsdall Gallery Theater in East Hollywood. As she stepped out, Nanci Rossov, who works at the Watts Towers Art Center, said the gathering gave employees an opportunity to vent their frustrations. "It was respectful, it was hurt, it was angry, but it was generally not self serving. There was a real strong sense that the communities, the larger community of Los Angeles is going to feel a very negative impact from this."

Managers told Rossov and dozens of other workers that 15 full-time employees would lose their jobs by the summer. The department plans to eliminate 18 other positions through early retirement or by not filling vacant positions. It’s also planning to shut down the Madrid Theater in Canoga Park, the Vision Theater near Crenshaw Boulevard, and the Warner Grand Theater in San Pedro. Art centers at the Watts Towers and Barnsdall Park would also close. The facilities could reopen later this year under the management of outside nonprofit groups.

When Sherrie Lofton — a cultural affairs employee for more than a decade — heard this, she thought of the families near those centers who’d lose out on summer arts classes.

"If you don’t have something in a community that is an anchor for that community, it becomes volatile. So I’m actually not worried, like I said, we’ll be back after the riots. They always come back and they always find money for programs after there’s been a problem," Lofton said.

Fellow employee Kai El Zabar said the piano, dance and visual art classes at these centers do double duty by teaching arts and offering a kind of early gang intervention. "We left here feeling that because the politicians don’t get that, we have to accept that we’re up for slaughter and that all we can do is not rock the boat but accept it, lay down and accept it."

Cultural Affairs head Olga Garay said L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa directed her to carry out the layoffs. Still, she’s ready to push elected leaders to protect the work of her department.

"We’re in the process of trying to set up meetings with council members in whose districts these community art centers and theaters are located. And we’re going to provide testimony to the arts, parks, health and aging committee on March 22nd at 11 o’clock at city hall," Garay said.

L.A. councilman Tom LaBonge said he supports the work of the Cultural Affairs department but doesn't think it's realistic to isolate it from cuts. "There's no money on the second floor in the treasurer's office to pay for our existence as we know it. Now we have to alter that existence."

LaBonge is the chair of the Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee. He said he hopes Garay's testimony at the committee will lead to creative ideas to help the department save money and avoid more cuts.

Last month Cultural Affairs employees and supporters mobilized and packed an L.A. city council meeting considering cuts to Cultural Affairs. The council shelved a plan to cut the department’s main source of funding.

Several cultural affairs employees said the today's meeting energized them to take up the fight again for the survival of publicly funded arts in a city that increasingly calls itself the creative capital of the world.

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