Thu, Aug

Charitable Gridlock Taking Serious Toll on the Arts … and Us as a Culture

CHARITY POLITICS - The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which launched a performing arts renaissance in Los Angeles but today is tired and bedraggled, could see new life under plans circulating among county officials.

Yet the effort to rejuvenate the Music Center's grand, 3,200-seat theater faces a daunting challenge -- one that is all too familiar to major arts and cultural institutions throughout the nation.

I wrote about the Pavilion's sad condition [link] last month as an example of what happens when corporations turn their back on community philanthropy and the really wealthy turn their attention to what's newest and shiniest -- leaving behind some of the country's most important cultural landmarks.

Music center officials would not comment when I first contacted them. But after publication of my column, they asked to sit down with me and lay out their tentative plan.

Stephen D. Rountree, the Music Center's president, envisions a $300 million redo, which would return the building to its pristine condition, expand the stage for the resident Los Angeles Opera Company, improve acoustics and replace aging mechanical systems. It also would bring the vast Music Center plaza along Grand Avenue [link] -- downtown's new showpiece -- into the 21st century with electronic displays that can be used for outdoor concerts and the like.

The alterations, which would be paid for by a combination of government grants and private fundraising, would have to be done carefully, Rountree noted, since the Pavilion has rightfully attained historic status. This means preserving the elegant details and materials that distinguish the mid-century building as envisioned by the acclaimed artist and designer Tony Duquette.

The gradual deterioration of this arts palace has become more noticeable over the last eight years since the Los Angeles Philharmonic [[http://www.laphil.com/philpedia/wdch-overview.cfm  ]]   left the Pavilion for its striking new home directly across the street at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Hall.

Two years ago, the county quietly moved to tap federal stimulus money to begin a renovation, but the funding never came. Now, with the Pavilion's 50th anniversary approaching in 2014, Music Center executives want to take another run at the idea.

Zev Yaroslavsky, a Los Angeles County supervisor and avid arts supporter, acknowledges the financial difficulty of raising large sums of money, particularly in an economic downtown. But he said the arts in Los Angeles -- and particularly the Music Center -- represent an economic engine for the local economy and it's imperative a private-public partnership be formed to carry out the work.

"We have a responsibility to do this," he told me.

Said Rountree: "I hope and dream that we can find a way to make it happen."

I wish Rountree Godspeed on the project. But with California still facing huge economic problems and mired in one of the nation's highest unemployment rates, I wouldn't bet my 401K on a quick outcome.

Nor would I wager much on other deserving arts projects all over the country.

The shame is that taxpayers have to be called on to finance these worthy endeavors at all. Dorothy Chandler, the matriarch of the family that founded the Los Angeles Times, was able to raise the entire amount to build the Pavilion from public-spirited corporations and wealthy individuals.

But the philanthropic world has fundamentally changed and arts programs have taken a disproportionate hit.

Today, corporate America has all but abandoned its public role, refusing to give much for community betterment unless marketing departments can project a direct benefit to the bottom line.

Many charitable foundations, understandably, are more focused on the plight of the poor, made worse by the downturn in the economy. And the very wealthy -- who are now asked to support so many more good causes -- seem fixated on new buildings and organizations that can bear their names. Some will chip in only if they can control and often micromanage the result.

So government here has become the financier of last resort.

Outside the United States this is the norm because major cultural programs and institutions are seen as a public responsibility.

In this nation, the rise of the Tea Party and other anti-tax, anti-spending interests coupled with American industry's unwillingness to support communities from which they draw their profits, have placed important arts centers like the Pavilion in political limbo.

The result could be a steady decline in the very institutions that define us as a culture.

(Leo C. Wolinsky is a media consultant and former managing editor of the Los Angeles Times. This article was posted first at huffingtonpost.com) –cw

Tags: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Music Center, Tea Party, culture, Disney Hall, Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, charities, charity, philanthropy

Vol 9 Issue 79
Pub: Oct 4, 2011