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Olga Garay-English on where L.A. stands in the arts and culture world

Olga Garay-English, former head of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.
Olga Garay-English, former head of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.

Museums, murals, music festivals — what makes a city's art culture stand out?

Olga Garay-English, who headed the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs from 2007 until earlier this year, shares with us where she believes L.A. stands in the world of arts and culture. The city, she says, is "in a very unique position so we really are the harbinger of things to come."

She also tells us how funding for the arts is being replenished after the recession and answers this question: If L.A. gets another Summer Olympics, will there be support for an Olympic Arts Festival?


On what she thought the opportunities were when she came to lead the city's arts department:

I always thought of a great city as having three primary elements for the arts: One of them is a cadre of individual artists — independent artists who are doing work in all sorts of disciplines; a bevy of neighborhood arts organizations that are small- to mid-size that are very attuned with people; and then some great institutions. And Los Angeles really fit that bill. It’s one of the most prominent cities in terms of the number of independent artists who live and work here. When you go into the neighborhoods — Los Feliz versus Hollywood versus Watts versus San Pedro — the arts organizations that have grown up in those communities are vastly different, but they’re very, very much in touch with their own neighborhoods and communities. And then you have some really A-list organizations — LACMA, MOCA.

Where do you see L.A. now? Where does it fit in what’s going on in other parts of the country or even other parts of the world?

I might be a little biased, but the fact that L.A. has such a strong Latino presence, I think puts it in a very unique position. So we really are the harbinger of things to come. We’re almost 50 percent Latino right now in Los Angeles and I think that puts us in a very intriguing leadership position in terms of what’s to come in this country’s future.

What’s going on in other parts of the country that excites you?

Well, one thing that excites me is the fact that now that the recession seems to be finally at an end, the philanthropic community is investing in the arts again. It [has] been really, really [a] difficult period – especially for organizations of color — so now there is that ability to go back and invest in the arts and I think that can’t be heralded enough.

Speaking of funding, do you see municipalities in the state of California being able to get back to the level of support where they once were?

That’s interesting because, unlike states, many municipalities have dedicated sources of income. In the city of Los Angeles and in the county of Los Angeles, there is a transient occupancy tax, so that every time somebody stays at a hotel they have to pay 14 percent tax. In this case, the [city's] one percent of the 14 percent goes into the Department of Cultural Affairs. Same thing for [new construction], the arts development fee when private developers build a bank or a store. Interestingly, states don’t tend to have dedicated sources and so they depend on annual allocations from the state government — it’s a lot more fickle, if you will. So I can say that now, as the economy is rebounding, municipal entities will definitely have a resurgence; The state [funding] is less predictable because there’s not that direct kind of formula.

But [do] you see an uptick in corporate funding, corporate support in the foundation world as well?

Yeah, in the foundation world for sure. Corporations, you know... that’s a trickier bag. They tend to [donate] in the cities where they’re housed. And Los Angeles has lost most of its corporate headquarters in the last 25 or so years. The corporate scenario is, again, a little bit harder to predict than foundations. Interestingly, for a city of its importance, of its size, the philanthropy field here is not as developed as in the East Coast. The robber baron cities had old, old, old money [with] a real commitment to philanthropy that is much more difficult to ascertain here. There are very important philanthropists here, but it’s not as ingrained as it is in some of the older cities on the East Coast. So, I think that the philanthropic community in Los Angeles really needs to mature a little bit more than it has.

There is talk, once again, about Los Angeles perhaps pursuing a Summer Olympics down the road. When the last one was held in 1984, there was a big arts festival. Do you see the city being able to support an Olympic arts festival again?

I can’t foresee [it] unless a major institution [is] going to take that leadership role. If we do get the Olympics, then we sort of have to [laughs], and then people will rally around that funding and marketing opportunity. 

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