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Discuss: L.A.'s Arts and Culture Scene

Posted By Administration, Sunday, March 23, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

They're all outsiders, drawn to Los Angeles from such established creative hubs as New York and Chicago by the potential of a city they see as still defining itself culturally.

They speak with confidence about the role that the arts can play in Los Angeles, and declare their willingness to work together to expand arts education and possibly sponsor a major citywide cultural initiative, such as an arts festival.

They're the leaders of Los Angeles' five most prominent cultural institutions: Deborah Borda, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn.; Placido Domingo, general director of Los Angeles Opera; Michael Govan, director and chief executive of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Michael Ritchie, artistic director of Center Theatre Group, which includes the Ahmanson Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum and the Kirk Douglas Theatre; and James N. Wood, president and chief executive of the Getty Trust.

The Times brought the five together for the first time March 2 for a wide-ranging roundtable discussion. They exchanged impressions of their adopted city, analyzed Los Angeles' emerging status as an acknowledged global center of contemporary art production, detailed challenges facing their institutions and laid out a collective vision of how the arts could play a greater regional role in the century ahead.

To begin with, most said they had been attracted to Los Angeles because its cultural identity is less formalized than those of other cities.

"L.A. has emerged very recently as one of the major centers of art production -- and it's on the rise," said Govan, former director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York City who came to Los Angeles about two years ago.

Ritchie, who ran the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts before taking over at Center Theatre Group in January 2005, agreed that the arts in Los Angeles are gaining worldwide attention. "Something is happening here, and everybody is discovering it together," he said.

A recurring question raised by the five arts leaders was how their institutions could attract individuals and groups that have traditionally had limited or no access to them.

There was a consensus that educational programming, directed at both children and adults, is key to any such community outreach effort. But there are obstacles and limits to what education alone can achieve, the leaders agreed.

Govan suggested that he and the others "ought to press the agenda of an arts-based education." Wood said that such an effort might start with the city's charter schools but that he was "really nervous about tackling the education bureaucracy."

Calling the institutions' education programs "one of the most important things we have," Domingo lamented that music instruction isn't mandatory in public schools. "We have such a disadvantage today, with the pop music available for every kid," he said.

Borda, who took the reins of the L.A. Philharmonic in 2000 after leading the New York Philharmonic, emphasized that providing arts education "in every single school" is "probably not the best use of what we do" in terms of developing new constituencies.

Rather, she said, the orchestra and other large cultural organizations can serve as "conveners" that leverage their resources to "bring together the many different fabrics of the community."

She underscored the Philharmonic's naming of new music director Gustavo Dudamel, a 27-year-old Spanish-speaking Venezuelan, as "a very determined statement" of the orchestra's commitment to serving Southern California's growing Latino population.

Inevitably the discussion turned toward the giant pop-culture force that has long overshadowed the arts in Los Angeles: Hollywood. For decades among L.A. cultural leaders, Hollywood was regarded with a mixture of envy and wishful thinking. Efforts to solicit Hollywood financial support and integrate Hollywood artists into the city's high-culture scene often produced mixed results.

But according to the five panelists, that old scenario no longer applies.

While Hollywood is too sprawling an entity to be grasped or generalized about, Ritchie said, "there are many individuals or corporate entities that are part of the larger entertainment industry that I think do take part in what we're doing."

However, the group agreed that Los Angeles still lags behind other metropolises in private arts philanthropy. "I guarantee you, Chicago is giving more per capita than L.A.," Wood said.

The question of what it means to program "locally" in a city as cosmopolitan and globalized as Los Angeles has become increasingly complex, the leaders agreed.

Wood, former president of the Art Institute of Chicago, said the Getty is responding to this reality by addressing some of L.A.'s "built-in communities" with a show on Sinai icons and upcoming exhibitions of Mexican antiquities and Cambodian bronzes.

Govan suggested that cultural institutions such as LACMA have become more daringly international and adventurous by embracing rather than downplaying their local identity.

"Twenty years ago, L.A.'s cultural institutions were quite conservative," he said. LACMA's original buildings were "anonymous," Govan added, and the museum is now "making a conscious effort" to recognize its L.A. identity by adding artistic touches like Robert Irwin's palm trees and Chris Burden's street lamp installation.

Who will take the role of arts leadership in the decades to come? The panelists acknowledged the challenges in trying to collaborate or even meet regularly with other local arts entities. As Ritchie pointed out, "it took 40 e-mails" just to arrange this discussion.

Toward the end of the meeting, these various strands of thought coalesced around the idea of an arts festival, proposed by Domingo. He suggested a two-week or monthlong event, possibly connected to L.A. Opera's production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle in 2010, with "special exhibitions, whatever could be done, with the Philharmonic, with the opera," as well as family-oriented recreational activities.

The idea was well received.

"The issue is, we need to plan for that," Borda said. "But this is very good. Maybe this will be the excuse that brings us together."

By Reed Johnson
For The Los Angeles Times

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