December 4, 2023 - From the December, 2023 issue

LA 2028 Olympics Cultural Opportunities: Aaron Paley

As Los Angeles looks forward to hosting the 2028 Olympics, many in Metro LA are ill-informed as to how organizers plan to address the region’s infrastructure needs, public transportation woes, etc.; and, seriously ill-informed re: the potential to highlight metro LA’s diverse and rich arts & entertainment assets. A recent letter, cosigned by the heads of several art–related organizations in LA, highlights the need for both transparency and serious planning to begin to assure a cultural victory. TPR spoke with Aaron Paley of Community Arts Resources, one of the letter’s signers, on just what such a victory should look like & include. Paley also speaks of the unmet challenge of past Olympic games, and the need for much greater transparency and communication with LA28, the Olympic planning commission.

Aaron Paley

“(W)e would hope that (LA28) would learn from 40 years of lessons of what's happened in LA since the Olympic Arts Festival in 1984…, breaking new ground and helping establish some new paradigm for Los Angeles and its cultural scene.” - Aaron Paley

TPR: Aaron… Share with our readers the many cultural and civic events  –which have left a lasting mark– that you have organized in Los Angeles over the last two decades?

Aaron Paley: The firm I co-created with Katie Bergin, Community Arts Resources, is now in our fourth decade. We started at the end of 1988 and in light of our discussion, I don't think our firm would have happened without the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. Katie and I met in 1982 while working on festivals; at the Craft and Folk Art Museums’ Festival of Masks which became a part of the Olympic Arts Festival. After that, there was a reaction to the Olympic Arts Festival, with the local arts community saying they didn't feel that we were properly represented. They wanted their own festival called the Fringe Festival, so I became the director of that in 1986…but it was literally out of those series of festivals that Katie and I got the idea at the end of the 80s that there's a niche for this, and Katie and I had already worked on like eight festivals together. 

There was a tendency for every festival to basically recreate a new team for each festival. When the next festival would come along, you'd have to assemble a team from scratch and we said, this is crazy -- we know how to do festivals. Our goal became to create a firm in this festival niche where we just do this on a regular basis.

Elaborate, Aaron, on the site specific cultural festivals you have created and managed? 

Well, we were doing festivals that were already different in their structure or template. So one kind of festival that we were doing would be a site-specific community festival. We would take over a park or a parking lot and do a day or a weekend of programming to portray a range of Los Angeles cultures. 

There were also other templates for festivals that we had already worked on where you have an umbrella and under that umbrella, lots of different events would happen. Under this umbrella, it would be kind of like the way Pacific Standard Time works. For example, with the Getty, they throw up an (overarching idea as an) umbrella and there’s a range of events happening over one week to a whole month. You’d pick the umbrella and you’d pick the range. So that's another kind of festival and the Fringe was the umbrella-type festival where all these events would happen, something like 500 events in 400 venues over a month. 

After that, we went into business as Community Arts Resources (aka CARS). We started creating new kinds of festivals or discovering new templates. For example, one of our first jobs was to set up the model for ongoing outdoor programming in Downtown LA that was partially funded by the real estate development, California Plaza. We helped write the plan for that and created a summer festival of lunchtime concerts, which then evolved into lunchtime and evening events under the leadership of Michael Alexander as Grand Performances. This has been going on for 30 years now. 

We also co-created another signature event, CicLAvia, and that was based upon an entirely different kind of festival that we didn't know anything about until we came upon Ciclovía in Bogotá during the Spring of 2009. It’s a project of open streets and is now in its 50th year in Colombia and 13 years in LA, and that was an entirely new way of activating public space for us and for Los Angeles. 

I can say that we've created a range of similar things such as the Santa Monica Festival, which ran for 25 years. That was a classic, one-day community festival for all of Santa Monica. We also produced something called GLOW in Santa Monica, which was a mile-long stretch of beach that was activated by site-specific commissioned artworks from dawn to dusk, attracting a quarter million people overnight. That was a different kind of model but those are a couple of different kinds of festivals that have had an impact on LA.

Let’s return to what inspired your event work: the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. LA’s bid to host the ‘28 Olympics prioritized sustainability but also explicitly promised an arts festival. What did you imagine LA28’s proponents had in mind for an Olympics Cultural Arts Festival? 

Well it's not what they promised, it’s required. The IOC requires every host city to involve the arts. In the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, it was called the Olympic Arts Festival-- they're now talking about it as the ‘Cultural Olympiad’. However you call it, we would hope that we would learn from 40 years of lessons of what's happened in LA since the Olympic Arts Festival in 1984. 

In terms of cultural programming, we hope that this festival will not make the same mistakes and will hopefully be a great harbinger of wonderful things to come, breaking new ground and helping establish some new paradigm for Los Angeles and its cultural scene. 

Elaborate on what you assert were the past mistakes that were made in 1984; then share the possible ‘new paradigms’ for avoiding those historical mistakes. What could LA organizers learn from LA’s past games & the numerous cultural events and festivities held over the past 40 years?

I think given the ways Los Angeles has evolved, it's really important to highlight Los Angeles as a place, a cultural destination, and a cultural source. While the 1984 festival, to an extent, had local groups involved, it was by and large, more of an importation of amazing things from Europe that nobody had ever seen before. 

Although it was inspirational, in that sense, to see things that we had never seen before, it didn't properly nor adequately include local arts practitioners. Local practitioners viewed the festival as an affront that then created a series of reactions, ultimately leading to the creation of the Fringe Festival in 1987. Then it led to Peter Sellars coming in as a director of what became a transformed Los Angeles Festival in 1990. Sellars pivoted and said let's think beyond Eurocentrism and understand how we can begin including LA-based communities and LA-based practitioners in a meaningful way.

While those lessons were learned through the 80s and at the beginning of the 90s, they've also carried forward, especially after the 1992 uprising and following movements for inclusive programming and anti-racist thought. So then, you really want to think about LA as the character that you're presenting-- right? It has all these personifications as a place that you want to understand and present (to the public) front and center. 

Doing so would not mean creating an event where you ask people to come Downtown, for example. If you really properly consider the multiculturalism and dispersed nature of LA, the event programming would need to be across multiple spaces and multiple nodes. Each festival needs to actually have that sense of community and have a sense of origin, right? 

If you do a festival in Watts, you're going need a great amount of programming from that area, as opposed to creating a model on a kind of colonial concept where you extract some culture and then bring it into other places. 

We want to actually create an authentic and rooted festival so each time in each neighborhood, it's going to have a different feeling and different look in order to respond to that place. That would be the lesson of 1984 and I think it’s important to learn. I also think you saw that in 2022 with the Getty’s 25th Anniversary community festivals that CARS produced as well as in Getty’s Pacific Standard Time, as they're investing millions of dollars into local organizations that create things that make sense for their own organization. It's a very distributed or decentralized event structure, with lots of programming going on all over Southern California-- kind of like the way the Olympics will be staged here.

Aaron, recently a letter was written to LA City Councilwoman Traci Park by a number of arts organizations, which suggested some ideas for the Cultural Olympiad and also how to fund these recommendations. Councilwoman Park chairs the Council’s Ad Hoc committee for the 2028 Olympic and Paralympic games. Share the essence of that letter and what the signers were requesting?

I think that the key reason that the letter was written is similar to what I was saying before. Mainly around the issues of making sure that we really highlight Los Angeles and its people who not only reside here but also the local practitioners of arts and culture, especially within the different communities. …the second thing [in the letter] was to create a kind of joint fundraising mechanism for the Cultural Olympiad. So instead of every group that wanted to participate going off and having fundraising on its own, there would be one collective way to raise money for this project. Both of these issues, considering that we have a letter written now, point out a huge lack of information. We're just four and a half years out from this event we've known about since 2018 and here we are. 

LA was awarded this amazing opportunity, and it's the first time in the history of the Olympics that a city knew 10 years in advance about the fact that it was going to host. Instead of taking advantage of that opportunity to build a collective vision, in my opinion, there hasn't been much or really any information coming out of LA28 on what they're thinking about or planning for. 

So that vacuum, that lack of information, led a lot of people in the community to start talking to each other about what it should be and what they want to see. They’re thinking that maybe we need to go off on our own, but in the end, you've got to work with LA28. 

Regarding the cultural arts opportunities alluded to– a number of people across a spectrum of cultural & civic organizations have said that LA28 is the “least transparent” organization they've ever seen. Is it? 

Well, for the Arts Festival agenda, I know that a number of people have directly gone to speak with the LA28 staff and asked what their plans were. At each point, they’ve said it's too early for us [LA28] to say. Katie and I met with them in 2018 because we were so excited and thought, let's start talking about this. At that point, they told us “you're too early- come back in five years!”

I know that other people have come to them and they've said that they’re using the 2023 timeframe to gather information to understand what direction they're gonna go. So we still haven't heard anything from them beyond their information-gathering phase.

That above referenced letter asserts that there are over 900 community and arts organizations in the LA basin. Could you address what some of the potential organizing challenges are of getting valuable, actionable input from such large and diverse cultural stakeholders? 

Well, the General Manager of the Cultural Affairs Department, Danielle Brazell, under former mayor Eric Garcetti, started her own listening sessions with the community in 2019. There were open meetings but also meetings by invitation to actually just start getting input. I don't know what happened with that but she was supposed to have written a white paper for the previous mayor on where the direction for this Cultural Olympiad should take. 

It is possible, and both government and non-government agencies have done this process of gathering information about different aspects that affect the arts and cultural community. The County’s Department of Arts and Culture has also taken on the task of gathering voices given the scope and scale of LA County, so it is definitely possible. 

What do you hope Councilwoman Traci Parks' response will be to the aforementioned Letter?

I think my hope would be to bring representatives of the LA cultural scene together with staff at LA28 to start thinking about what this might look like or at least understand what they’re planning so that local arts organizations and communities can respond to that. 

Lastly, You said ‘looks like,’ which triggers a follow-up question. LA AIA has expressed an interest in collaborating with LA28 on the resilient and innovative urban design incorporated into the ‘28 games. What could be accomplished if such a collaboration with LA AIA and others could be embraced? 

Yes, and this actually goes to another important point that I've been thinking about, which is cohesiveness among the different programming initiatives. All of the elements need to work together and for me, a successful arts and cultural event would be something that's more fully integrated into Los Angeles in a way that could actually help with other initiatives that are going on. 

For example, if you look at Metro’s interesting wishlist of what they would like to fund for the 2028 games, you start seeing the interrelationship between their own initiatives and what LA28 should be planning for. With Metro’s budget, we are also talking about millions of dollars that could be applied for by all kinds of local groups like LA AIA. Even with their 75 million dollar first-last mile budget, there’s got to be a way to incorporate arts and culture into that and then especially with the 165 million dollar budget for the regional mobility hubs. As I continue to speak with Metro and LADOT, I’m convinced of the potential of making these hubs multi-use. Instead of it just being a mobility hub as a place to rent a bike and maybe get a ride, it could actually be a hub for the community, where mobility is there as well as other things like arts, culture, healthcare, or maybe a cafe. 

I guess I want to say that we're working in isolation but it would be great for us to be thinking about how all of these things work and could work together. 

So when it comes to the LA AIA letter, you see how Metro is setting aside 165 million dollars for mobility hubs. That's a huge amount of money for local architects and designers to create specific looks and feels for creative placemaking, which could produce a lasting legacy of the 2028 games. 

If we created hubs and community centers as new public spaces in neighborhoods all over LA County, we would have a legacy to live on as opposed to what is left from ‘84. Back then, their attempt at festive federalism was beautiful, but it was all temporary structures. To me and in my experience of the event, it had a permanent impact on me but with hindsight, there's very little visceral or tangible space that came out of the ‘84 games, and that was by design. 

It would be interesting to see if we might be able to do something lasting that integrates culture, architecture, design, community, mobility, and the games all together, instead of all of these things being divided into their own envelopes. 

Aaron, some might push back on your local focus: arguing that while the Olympics will be hosted in LA, the event itself is international. They surely will note that there are 97 languages spoken within the Los Angeles Unified School District, and that the regional includes as residents some of the largest concentrations of international populations outside of their respective capital cities. Thus, would you accept that there ought to be a place for international arts groups to showcase their cultural diversity? If so, should both LA and global arts groups be invited to participate?

I would start out with the premise that the world is in Los Angeles, and that multi-nationality is present in our city to varying degrees. We pretty much have representation from almost every culture on the planet, so there is a way to present the world through the lens of Los Angeles, highlighting how our different cultural communities have a tradition of working with their home countries to host these amazing festivals. 

You know, if you go to the annual Cambodian festival in Long Beach, there might be performers from Cambodia coming in. If you go to the Filipino festival, the same there. So the Cultural Olympiad could definitely celebrate global diversity through Los Angeles' own communities. 

However, that doesn't mean there isn't a place to welcome international artists and organizations from other countries. I would love to see some amazing things that we haven't seen before in Los Angeles. I would say it'd be a wonderful opportunity to showcase LA as a world capital at this specific point in time by showcasing what is currently happening here. The diversity is also not just in the numbers of people from all over the world, but we also have some of the greatest cultural practitioners living here as well.

Lastly, what are the next steps for the cultural community of LA and LA-based artists like yourself to secure better clarity on arts opportunities for the 2028 games? 

Well, I'm hoping that either LA28 will come out and say this is what they’re planning to do, or that they'll want to share their progress and say to the communities, let's talk about it. In one way or another, I would love to hear something concrete from LA28. 

On another note, I want to add that it's not just about popular culture. So while it’s important to emphasize the great popular culture that we have exported to the whole world, that aspect of LA should just be one part of a larger tapestry. The whole picture and vision should really try to engage popular culture but still utilize the wonderful collection of cultural and community riches in LA.


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