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A crowd of about 50 parents, community members, artists, and children jammed into the William Grant Still Arts Center–surrounded by works profiling musician Thelonious Monk–to talk about saving a place they said serves as the heartbeat of the local cultural life. They were discussing their concerns with 10th District City Councilman Herb Wesson and Olga Garay, the head of the city’s Cultural Affairs Department (CAD), as well as how to save the city-operated facility from closure.
In general, the townhall exchange was cordial, although several participants heatedly challenged Wesson to show the same determination and passion for saving the community arts center as he did, when declaring that he would fight to maintain the police force.
William Grant Still and the Watts Towers Art Center, the only two such city-operated facilities in the African American community, are victims of the city’s continuing budget crisis, which according to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in his state-of-the-city address Tuesday, finds L.A. facing a whopping $485 million deficit for the 2010-11 fiscal year. And like Wesson, the mayor said that public safety is the city’s primary concern, and consequently this new proposed budget will main the department’s current contingent of just under 10,000 officers. Everything else, is subject to cuts.
Villaraigosa is asking department heads to pare down costs; unions to take across-the-board pay reductions; as well as employees themselves to pay more of their pension and healthcare costs. He is also seeking to make structural changes in the way the city operates fiscally, and a key part of this is looking at ways to partner with private and nonprofit organizations to relieve L.A. of some of the economic burden it currently faces.
The city’s budget crisis has had a devastating impact on William Grant Still and the Watts Towers Art Center. According to Garay, she was initially ordered to cut her 70-person staff by 30. After negotiation, that figure was cut to 15.
However, the staff reduction order still meant that one of the two full-time employees at William Grant Still and the one of the three full-time workers at Watts Towers received immediate lay-off notices. Actions by Wesson and Ninth District Councilwoman Janice Hahn requesting that funding be moved from the Money for Public Arts fund ($9,000 for Hahn and up to $200,000 for Wesson) gave the centers a brief reprieve.
This city council action enabled CAD to temporarily rehire the laid off staff members until the end of the fiscal year on June 30, and as Wesson told the crowd Monday, provided a little breathing room to come up with more permanent solutions.
The townhall participants pointed out that William Grant Still and Watts Towers are particularly crucial to the communities they serve, because they offer free or low-cost art, music, photography, animation, and graphic arts classes to youth, who often do not have the resources to take these courses in other locations.
Watts Towers serves an estimated 6,000 children annually through its classes, visiting and neighborhoods schools program, as well as in the museum education option.
William Grant Still serves about 1,000 children directly per year and about 10,000 indirectly through co-teaching programs and development of curriculum.
In order to save both these programs, as well as the others on the chopping block, as Mayor Villaraigosa said in his address Tuesday, structural changes will have to be made in how the centers operate, and during the Townhall, the change Wesson repeatedly broached was creating a partnerships with a non-profit entity that would run the facilities.
But before any request for proposals can be issued, Garay said CAD, which only programs with the centers, must work out arrangements with the actual landlords–the city’s department of General Services and/or Parks and Recreation.
Once that happens, city officials say they can begin evaluating the feasibility of partnerships.
People at the townhall reminded Wesson and Garay, that when this process begins, they definitely want to be at the planning table.