Adapt or die, arts orgs told

“Building Community: Putting the Art in Partnership” was the theme of the third Governor’s Conference on the Arts last week at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

And while the succession of 22 speakers and panelists offered a wide variety of insights and strategies on the subject, the basic message was if arts orgs wish to survive the recession and federal budget cuts they will have to be creative and re-evaluate their reason for being, as well as their relationship to the community.

Otherwise, they may perish.

The two-day conference,which was organized by the California Arts Council and the California Institute of the Arts, drew an audience of more than 400 arts administrators, educators, graduate students, individual artists and program coordinators from throughout California.

Purpose of confab was to address the integration of the arts into the economic, social, environmental and educational aspects of the community, as well as to explore ways of using the arts as a catalyst for providing jobs, attracting business and tourism, and enhancing community life.

“If the arts are utilized properly,” arts council director Joanne Kozberg said, “we can help our communities deal with a number of problems that face us today. The arts can be used for communicating cultural diversity, as well as an economic tool. We have 250,000 artists living in the state, more than any other state in the Union, as well as the entertainment industry here. They are by definition creative problem-solvers.”

Robert McNulty, president of Partners for Livable Places and formerly the assistant director of the art and architecture program for the National Endowment for the Arts, offered a thought-provoking evaluation of what it may take for arts orgs to get by in the years to come.

To survive, he said, art institutions will have to become essential members of the overall community. “In this context,” he said, “it will be essential for almost all arts organizations to find new friends, create new audiences and broaden demand for their services.”

“Some organizations may not want to do this,” McNulty conceded. “They may say , ‘We’re not sociologists. We’re not responsible for race or poverty or ignorance.’ But after some time, they may begin to think, ‘Maybe we can do something about it. Maybe it is in our best interest.’ ”

Cal Arts prez Steven Lavine is also concerned about the health of cultural institutions. Like McNulty, he stressed the need for internal changes, but said they must stem from the right motivation.

“If arts organizations choose to adapt to the community need only because they think that’s where funding is going to come from, they will be defeated.” he said. “The issue for all the arts, is to see that they have a vital stake in the welfare of the neighborhoods and cities they occupy. If we want a future for artists, at a time when the schools aren’t going to be able to afford arts programs, somebody has to take responsibility for going out and seeing that talented kids get a break.

“That is why it is so important to start forging new relationships and linkages between arts organizations, educational institutions, government agencies, corporate sponsors and the private sector down to the parental level,” Lavine said.

“We are in a very dangerous period,” he concluded. “We are looking at a possible 66% cut (over three years) to the budget of the California Arts Council , which would essentially put the council out of business.

“It’s a time when organizations like the American Ballet Theater are on the ropes and 50% of all regional theaters are running a deficit. No one is entirely safe. No matter how precious the heritage an institution holds, it’s clear that without real thinking and change, many of them are not going to survive the next 10 years.”

Similar sentiments were echoed throughout the conference.

Friday night, at the 4th Annual Governor’s Awards for the Arts dinner, held at the Regent Beverly Hills Hotel, the attendees paid tribute to actor and film director Clint Eastwood, jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald, writer Ray Bradbury, artist Robert Graham, community arts group “Plaza de la Raza,” arts patron Gordon Getty and corporate arts patron Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.

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