L.A. Municipal Art Gallery Crisis

Founded in the early 1950s, the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (LAMAG) has long played an important role in the cultural life of L.A. Located in the historic Barnsdall Art Park at the intersection of Hollywood and Vermont, the world class gallery has showcased internationally renowned artists, and provided exhibition space for beginning and mid-career artists. I remember the thrill of exhibiting at LAMAG as an art student in the early 1970s. The gallery annually hosts exhibitions of works created by the those who have been awarded grants from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. Over the decades I have been enthralled by LAMAG exhibits, and I was moved to write about their Edward Biberman Revisited show of 2009. The gallery’s history, arts programs, and community vision is exemplary - you can read about this for yourself.

It is a scandal that LAMAG has been marked for “partnering out all of its facilities” by L.A.’s city government because of L.A.’s budget crisis. “Partnering out” is simply a euphemism for the cutting of government funding and pushing the privatization of the arts institution. It is rumored that L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), which received a $30-million “bailout” from billionaire real estate magnate Eli Broad in Dec. 2008, is set to absorb LAMAG.

I received the following call to action from the President of LAMAG, and I am reprinting it here in its entirety:

September 1, 2010

City to Partner Out the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery

Dear Arts Community,

The Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs has been directed to issue Requests for Proposals (RFP’s) as the first step in partnering out all of its facilities. This is being done as a cost savings measure in response to the City’s budget deficit. What has been unclear until recently was that these RFP’s will include the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (LAMAG).

Rumors have been circulating for some time that the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) is among the institutions considering taking over the fifty-six year old institution. The art community has been uncharacteristically silent about this impending change in the LAMAG’s status. Much like the proverbial deer in the headlights, there is a prevailing air of shock and disbelief among those familiar with its history, and tacit resignation to whatever fate might befall the institution, by those who are not. The lack of any concerted effort to promote the Gallery’s exhibition and educational programs has contributed greatly to making it vulnerable and ripe for the picking.

Since its founding in 1954 the LAMAG’s mission has been to exhibit the work of emerging, mid career and established artists from the region, as well as work relevant to the diverse communities that make up the City of Los Angeles. Prior to the building of LACMA in the 60s, it was the largest space exhibiting contemporary art in Los Angeles. It has operated with equity and impartiality, embracing both the traditional and contemporary aesthetic, while always mindful of its responsibility to the public and its goal of enhancing the quality of life. It occupies a unique niche in the city’s cultural landscape, being neither a museum, nor a commercial gallery, allowing it broad curatorial latitude not enjoyed by other institutions.

The LAMAG hosts the annual COLA Fellowship for Individual Artists and the Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg Feitelson Emerging Artist Fellowship exhibitions, showcasing the work of some of the City’s most creative minds. Biannually the Municipal Art Gallery presents the All City Juried Exhibition and in intervening years, the All City Open Exhibition in which anyone in the city can exhibit their work. LAMAG also serves as a space that hosts important exhibitions from our sister cities, something I dare say other institutions would probably be unable or unwilling to do.

We should be questioning the wisdom of, or the lack there of, any idea ceding total governance of such an important asset to any institution or individual who’s agenda is not in keeping with the public character of the LAMAG. Such a move has the effect of a greater stratification of the visual arts in a city where the disparity between so called “new school” or “high art” and more populist artistic genres is growing ever wider. Other cities are expanding their municipal exhibition spaces and establishing new ones. Many of these cities are facing the same budget challenges as are we, and see public safety as their number one priority. However they have never lost sight of the fact the that part of their responsibility in providing public safety includes promoting the general well being of its citizenry.

What can you do? Write to the Mayor and your City Councilperson expressing your concern for the future of the Gallery. (Please see the attached template letter and link to City Council.) As for the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery Associates, we are advocating that language be incorporated in the Request for Proposals requiring prospective operators to maintain the public nature of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, and that a substantial portion of the Gallery’s mission be preserved. Furthermore, we would ask that the name “Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery” be retained and that the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery Associates have a vital role in supporting the mission of the Gallery.

The Municipal Art Gallery is not only a historic attraction in a city that touts itself as an international arts destination; it is an irreplaceable source of pride for Angelenos and the creative community.

Please act now.

On behalf of the entire board of LAMAG,
Maria Luisa de Herrera,

Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery
Web: lamag.org. Phone: 323.644.6269. Fax: 323-644-6271. E-mail: info@lamag.org

The emergency faced by the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery must not be viewed as an isolated incident, but as part of a systemic catastrophe faced by the arts community across the United States; the crisis shows little sign of decreasing. The American Folk Art Museum in New York City, which holds an important collection of Americana, is in danger of closing its doors; the institution is currently struggling to pay off a crushing debt that has been exacerbated by the capitalist financial downturn. The museum has cut its budget by over $1 million, implemented layoffs of staff, and ceased printing its publication, Folk Art Magazine. In a further effort to cut costs the museum now publishes some of its exhibition catalogs only online.

The Wall Street Journal reported that New York’s Chelsea Art Museum temporarily closed its doors to the public for the month of August as it battles to avoid foreclosure. The paper reported that the museum, in a desperate attempt to raise money, “pledged its entire permanent collection of artwork as collateral to pay its mortgage.” That move apparently only worsened the museum’s problems, as it was a violation of state laws supervising museum charters.

Many people in the arts community voted for President Obama because they believed his administration would be supportive of the arts, that he would live up to his promises contained in his acclaimed Platform in Support Of The Arts (.pdf here), and that he would drastically increase funding for the arts. So far, the only substantive response from Mr. Obama came on February 1, 2010, when he announced he would be cutting support for the arts in his proposed budget for fiscal year 2011. It is imperative that the arts community demand President Obama act on establishing a new WPA-style arts program that will revive and expand the nation’s museums, cultural venues, and galleries, in tandem with creating a massive jobs program to put the country’s artists to work.

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