November 24, 2001 - From the November, 2001 issue

New Cultural Affairs GM Seeks To Have Arts Become Voice of L.A.'s Diverse Communities

Margie Rees, the recently installed General Manager of L.A.'s Cultural Affairs Deptartment, has used her first 11 months in L.A. to survey the city's cultural and artistic landscape. During that tenure, she has watched as the Neighborhood Council system has begun to form. In watching that evolution, she offers a suggestion: Why not have the Councils partner with the arts community? TPR was pleased to sit with Margie and talk about the state of affairs of L.A.'s cultural heritage and arts communities and how they may be the missing link between giving neighborhoods a voice, making them safe and weaving together the cultural fabric of Los Angeles.


Margie Reese

Margie, with 11 months now to acquiant yourself both with Los Angeles and the City's Cultural Affairs Department, share with our readers your impressions of both the city's appetite for the arts and of the Department's possible role in their promotion.

I've found that there is a tremendous interest in arts and cultural activities here in this city. That's the good news. And it's very exciting. What's frustrating is that I can't get my arms around who's on first and/or the city's role in all of the energetic excitement.

This department has been seen as a grant maker, a "funder" of activities. We've not participated in the planning and goal setting for the City for some time and we're definitely not looked at as a repository of information. Those gaps need to be filled. We can no longer simply be reactive, we have to be proactive, bring people together and get them talking.

This Department must really be a "convener". We need to flesh out ideas and set priorities so that when we present requests to the Mayor and the Council we're not merely a group of unorganized artists or cultural historians but really a vehicle for the community's voice. That needs to be a major goal and perhaps that's the footprint I'd like to leave behind.

How do you integrate this convener role into the priorities and practice of the Department? What is being planned to implement this new approach?

I think we simply need to start showing up. We need to work with neighborhood councils, various Chambers of Commerce, nonprofits, foundations and, of course, the corporate community.

By doing that we begin to use the arts as a catalyst for addressing community change and issues. While one of our goals is to nurture the creative process, the other goal is to see the arts respond to prevailing community concerns. Whether that's arts for young people or heritage preservation, we need to be better positioned to show that the arts can provide a meaningful answer.

How are you proceeding to use the arts as a catalyst for community change?

You do it one step at a time. Our staff has gotten used to staying in their offices and talking about San Pedro and the Valley. We can't merely talk about those areas of the City, we need to be there, have a presence and collaborate with local schools, social service providers, etc. The aggressive deployment of staffers is the first step to finding out what the local issues are and using the resources of Cultural Affairs to address them.

Your department has historically made grants to arts organizations. Have you recommended to your commission and the Council any new approaches for accomplishing the objectives of this grants program?

We have to broaden the base of applicants. That may sound contradictory to a politician's notion of spending too much money on the arts, but we tend to fund a variety of organizations that do the same things. We must make a conscious effort to nurture and develop relationships in new communities. But if our goal is to broaden our applicant pool, we've got to lower some of the barriers to accessing public funding. That will have the ancillary benefit of lowering public barriers to art and cultural activities.

We have to rethink a number of processes here at Cultural Affairs. Our programs are great and our systems are strong, but sometimes that can be a detriment to the overall process. There's some opportunity here for us to rethink how we can provide greater access to the public and perhaps reshape some of our programs and systems as a way of figuring out how to better access the masses.

Obviously, the events of Sept. 11 have affected the priorities of our nation, state and city, not to mention the fiscal capacity of Los Angeles. How do you propose to invigorate your department and at the same accept the funding limitations that will be increasingly restrictive this year?

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I don't think you can separate the arts, culture and tradition from L.A. or the lingering effects of Sept. 11, terrorism and our response to it.

At its very foundation, art and culture are really about how people interact. And right now that interaction is the most important facet of community. It needs to be nurtured and emphasized. Because of those factors, the arts may be as important as issues of local security in that it brings people together and helps them understand culture, ethnicity and divergent worldviews.

The arts community must have a place at the table and must be a participant in the conversation about the impending economic downturn. Our museums and plazas may not have the same volume of visitors coming from outside the state, but they can be vehicles to stimulate and encourage local residents to participate in the cultural resources in the City of Los Angeles. The challenges may be different and evolving, but the role of the art is still extremely important.

With the City's new charter now in full force and a new level of governance in L.A., the Neighborhood Councils, how is the department adapting?

There's a natural opportunity and partnership potential for our Department to engage Neighborhood Councils and talk about the role of the arts in addressing community issues.

In concert with that, we also operate 17 neighborhood cultural facilities that could be used as meeting places for these Councils. By offering those facilities, and their requisite staffs, we can help to serve the needs of those neighborhoods in a much stronger way.

In closing, could you describe a set of benchmarks that our readers could use a year from now to assess how well the Department's agenda is being accomplished?

We have to do a better job of using the Department's assets to engage a larger audience. We sometimes think that unless people come to us, they are not participating in the arts. We have to go to them. To do that we need to shore up the 200 festivals we support every year.

Los Angeles is said to be the City of Festivals. Yet, going to the Drum Festival in Watts is a challenge for some people. They're uneasy, they don't feel safe or comfortable, so we've got to present to the public a stronger statement about the value and the richness of some of the events that we already have.

But to make those kinds of things happen we need to be more enterprising. We must encourage partnerships. And we must be vocal advocates for the arts. Unless there is an audience and a support base for the arts, we will not be able to sustain this very important component of human life.

Margie, let's end by asking a year from now, what would you hope our readers to have recognized and seen coming out of both cultural heritage and cultural affairs?

A year from now I hope that people will be able to see an organized plan for taking care of our collection of historic monuments. I hope that they are able to see a more clear definition of where those monuments are and how they relate to the history of Los Angeles. I hope they are able to see evidence of a growing number of individual artists in neighborhood schools and community centers. And most of all, I hope that the citizens of L.A. are able to see that there is a tremendous advantage to supporting arts at the neighborhood level.

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