December 10, 2000 - From the December, 2000 issue

After 12 Years At The Helm Of Cultural Affairs, L.A.'s Adolfo Nodal Exits With Pride & A Warning

Over the past 12 years, the City of L.A. has received a much-needed infusion of arts and culture. From murals and parks to art galleries and festivals, much can be attributed to Cultural Affairs Department General Manager Adolfo V. Nodal. As he now leaves his post, poised to concentrate on art's opportunities in his homeland of Cuba, TPR was pleased to speak with Al about the accomplishments during his tenure--and why the new city governance structure will make future progress much more difficult.


Adolfo Nodal

Al, you've been at the helm of the L.A. Cultural Affairs Department for 12 years. During your tenure you spearheaded a number of projects throughout Los Angeles, which many say redefined the City's cultural awareness and aesthetic. As you now leave the general managership of the Department, give our readers an overview of these accomplishments. What was most meaningful? What's the lasting impact of your efforts? And what on your agenda is left undone?

The most meaningful part of my tenure was the chance to blend the arts into the fabric of the City. Artists have become involved in many things they haven't historically been a part of-including police stations and local libraries. We were able to get artists out of their studios and involved in civic life. And for me, that was the most important accomplishment in the last 12 years.

The only thing left undone--which I feel terrible about--is a master plan for emergency preparedness for the arts. Artists have a big role in emergency preparedness and in the rebuilding of a city. They can take very mundane things, like how to tie up a water heater, and make them palpable to people as information. After a big earthquake or a fire, artists can help people deal with grief and rebuild their neighborhoods and their lives. So I hope that plan is eventually completed.

The Cultural Heritage Master Plan was revisited at the Cultural Heritage Commission's December 6 meeting. Could you give our readers an idea of what's involved in that plan? And what lasting policies were at stake when it came up for a vote?

About 10 years ago, we finished a Cultural Affairs Master Plan describing the visual and performing arts components of the City. And we wanted to do the same thing for Cultural Heritage because we think it's time for the historic preservation community and the development community to take stock of our city's historic structures.

Most importantly, this Master Plan provides incentives to not only preserve the past, but enhance the future. For a long time, cultural heritage meant simply stopping structures from being torn down. But this Plan addresses how we can use the memory and the history of the City as a tool for building the future. The Commission, the Mayor and the Council need to look carefully at this Master Plan and move the agenda of cultural heritage forward in a City that desperately needs to follow the example of cities like New York, Boston or Philadelphia-and use its past to usher in the future.

Speaking of cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia, how does the percentage of the City's budget that is expended by L.A. on Cultural Affairs compare to those municipalities?

We receive approximately $15 million annually. So while I can't give you an exact percentage--none of my calculators go down that low--it's a very minuscule percent of the overall budget.

Yet it's still competitive with most cities, including New York. While New York may have a larger budget allocation, most of the money goes directly into facility support for the Met or other major institutions, and the money that the Cultural Affairs Commissioner ultimately has to work with is even less than the $15 million our Department receives each year. New York City has less discretionary dollars to initiate new programs and address issues that come up.

Let's translate this $15 million through the prism of the 1997 National Endowment for the Arts Canvas Report, in which you participated. In that report, four questions were outlined; let's apply those and see how they relate to the budget priority. First question: How can the arts build and maintain the reliability of the communities' social infrastructure? Second: How do the arts build a positive legacy for children? Third: What role do the arts play in linking communities and building a solid social framework? And fourth: How do the arts help to ensure livable communities for tomorrow? Al, how did your Commission play out the $15 million to answer those questions?

Over the 12-year period that I've been GM, the Department's $15 million annual budget has done a lot to address those questions. In fact, they've become the goals of our Department-to not only help artists and support the enlightened elements of the arts, but also use arts as a tool for community, economic and social development. And we're one of the few Departments in the country focusing on that emerging spirit-of art as a way to create community identity.

Each year, we devote $3 million to art institutions and individual artists in communities across Los Angeles. We fund artists-sometimes purely on the quality of their work-and in turn they act as our social agents in the community. Then about $5 million goes to funding the 175 annual festivals and productions citywide-like the African Marketplace, the Mariachi festival, the Pan-African Film Festival, L.A. Music Week, etc. Another significant chunk of our budget goes to working with artists and designers in building new City structures. It may only be 1% of the entire project, but it's an important 1%. And it helps build a relationship between the City facilities and the surrounding neighborhoods as well. We also have a very strong facilities program. Over the years, we've been acquiring and building facilities for neighborhoods across the City, such as theaters and community arts centers.

When I first came to the Department, funding for the arts was concentrated in the Wilshire Corridor and Hollywood. But since then, we've received additional funding and been able to spread it out to other communities. And that's where I see the future of L.A. City government spending on the arts-at the community level.

Let's take one of those facilities as a case example: Barnsdall Park. There are a number of agencies involved in that rehabilitation, but what is the role of Cultural Affairs in the rehab? And what's going on there?

About 10 years ago, Barnsdall Park was a forgotten park. Although it had incredible facilities-like the municipal art gallery, the adult education program for the arts, the junior art center, and the Hollyhock House-the space was divided into little fiefdoms, each wanting to do its own thing. And it was basically falling apart.

The only thing I could think to do was propose relocating the Los Feliz Library to Barnsdall, which expectedly caused an incredible controversy in the community. But it was really just a gambit to jumpstart the rehabilitation and focus some energy and financing into the park. And that it did.

So now, with all the previously fragmented pieces joining forces in the rehab effort, Barnsdall Park is going to be a very unique collection of facilities for the city--in terms of history, arts, education, design--that will capture the imagination of people all over the region.

Turning back to Downtown, let me read a quote from Jack Kyser, the chief economist of the LAEDC, on linking the arts to the economic viability of Los Angeles. He said, "People want to be Downtown; we just need to find more imaginative ways to encourage hotel, cultural and entertainment activities. A Charm Overlay is badly needed to get some of the City's character back." How does the City-through its Cultural Affairs Department, Redevelopment Agency, and others begin to have a livable, viable, 24-hour Downtown on top of the immense institutional and transportation investments we've made down here?

Jack's right. We still need to put the charm back into Downtown and create activities that will bring people here after dark. And the big developments Downtown--like Disney Hall, the new Cathedral, the Old Bank District, and St. Vibiana's--will help spur that effort. Not to mention the Mayor's proposal to link these facilities to City Hall; that's a great start.

With the CRA cap, your smallish budget, and disconnect among the city's GM's, who knits all this together into a coherent effort?

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The Mayor and the Council are the forces that should be knitting all these elements together; Cultural Affairs itself simply isn't set up to be the major leader in Downtown development.

However, a lot of things Downtown are happening on their own, led by projects like Tom Gilmore's and the Broadway redevelopment. I don't think we necessarily need one person or entity to control everything.

Let's talk about some other parts of the city. What projects can our readers expect in San Pedro, the Valley, West L.A. and the Eastside?

Incredible things are happening in San Pedro. The Warner Grand Theatre & Art Center has generated tremendous energy, and we're now developing a Croatian Cultural Center. We're completing another center in Wilmington as well. And artists are finally coming out of the woodwork, opening galleries and taking active civic roles in Downtown San Pedro.

Lankershim Boulevard in the Valley is another great example. Ten years ago, it was a fast street that needed an identity. But as soon as we opened the Lankershim Art Center, the NOHO arts district began to develop. It's a wonderful example of how something very small can mushroom into something as big as an entire neighborhood identity. Elsewhere in the Valley-which now receives 40% of our budget-we've built the Madrid Theater and are funding various organizations for cultural programming.

And East L.A. is a cultural happening on its own. And while we obviously can't take full credit for that cultural explosion, we have helped it grow. The Mariachi Plaza has become an incredible gateway to East L.A., and the Mariachi festival has generated a great deal of excitement as well. We continue to fund individual artists and organizations like the self-help graphic center, which have also done a lot for the community.

Al, you've been able to see the big picture through the prism of the Cultural Affairs Department. Comment, if you would, on the implications of secession vis-à-vis the Cultural Affairs agenda.

There will certainly be an impact because we'll probably have to break the Department into a number of agencies. And in my experience, we learn a lot more when the City is working together than when it's working apart. We've made some real progress in the Valley, and it would be terrible to give it all up to somebody starting from scratch. Frankly, I think secession would hurt the development of culture in the Valley.

On the other hand, with Charter reform and the new Neighborhood Councils, L.A. is going to be a very different place. Who knows what will happen? The only sure thing right now is that work in the public sector has become a lot more difficult. There are a lot of projects that I don't think would have gotten off the ground with Neighborhood Councils. Can you imagine convincing the Wilshire Corridor to turn its historic neon signs back on with Neighborhood Councils? Eventually, I hope they evolve into something positive, but for the short term it's going to make life in L.A.'s public realm very difficult.

That's a great segue to my next question on the Mayoral race this spring. You're in a great position to be candid about how we ought to govern your Department and achieve your agenda for integrating the arts in L.A. What advice can you give the Mayoral candidates?

I've advised every one of them that the General Managers' jobs have basically become Mayoral staff-and that is a drastic change. Frankly, I wouldn't have been able to do many of the things I've accomplished with this Department if I had to answer to the Mayor all the time. Mayor Riordan has used a great rule of thumb, "Act now and seek forgiveness later." He has allowed us to lead-who know what will happen in the future.

The best thing the new Mayor can do is name a Deputy Mayor for Arts & Culture. If it's going to get political, we should have somebody at the Mayoral level dealing with these issues-and allow the General Manager to manage and provide vision. Without this added level it's going to be very hard for a General Manager to make any kind of lasting change to a department.

What would be your advice then to both the city in choosing a successor, and to that successor in working with the new government structure of L.A.?

The Mayor needs to select someone who can really listen to the people of L.A.-something that I've been very proud of doing. I also hope this person will be able to deal with the multicultural nature of the City. It's easy to feel somewhat ‘culturally schizophrenic' because of the wealth of culture and ethnicity encapsulated in this City. So I hope it's someone who will understand that diversity.

And to my successor: Get to know the players in the Council and the Mayor's Office. See the good in what they propose, focusing on the positive issues, instead of just saying, ‘Oh, this is just some politician trying to push his/her agenda.' It takes everyone in City Hall working together to make good things happen.

Al, as you leave this position, what comes next?

I really want to focus my life and my future career in effecting positive change in my home country of Cuba. As a Cuban American, I truly believe that it's time for my generation to get involved and do whatever we can to make better connections between Cuba and the United States..

Culture is what I'm about, and the arts are an incredible tool for fostering that. It's also one of the few legal tools at my disposal because of the embargo. So I think I can do a lot of good for Cuba-and in the end, the U.S. I will also continue living in L.A. so I look forward to working in future cultural projects in our great city.

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