The Message Mess: Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa vs. Everyone?


This post isn’t about presenting quotes for or against the mayor of L.A. Rather, it’s inspired by personal observation. Maybe it will turn out to be true, incontrovertibly so, that Villaraigosa is America’s most wildly pro-arts mayor. Maybe the opposite is coming true. I don’t know.

What I do know is how struck I am by how Villaraigosa, each time I turn around, seems to be clashing with L.A. creative community. Is the grisly financial mess otherwise known as the state of California driving this? Of course. Still, Villaraigosa appears to be following the Michael Bloomberg model for municipal governance: Speak loudly and carry a big stick. Wield it until your foes submit.

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Not living in L.A., what also strikes me as extraordinary is the tone of the press coverage of the mayor’s approach toward arts support and funding. There’s fury in the headlines alone. If the mayor is simply reacting to budget problems, his messaging is nevertheless a disaster.

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Just consider the tone, for example, in the second and third paragraphs of this Apr. 28 story in the L.A. Times, citing the two “battles” underway:

One is fighting Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s plan to take away $415,000 in arts grants from groups that qualified under the standard competitive application process, in favor of four that he chose.

The other is preserving rent-free use of city buildings by nonprofit organizations, including leases on 245,000 square feet devoted to the arts. The city council’s budget and finance committee voted last week to require nonprofits to pay at least half the market rate in rent, plus utilities and maintenance – potentially costing arts tenants several hundred thousand dollars a year.

Yes, the mayor did back down the other day from the first battle — I have more on that at the bottom of this post. What I’m getting at is Villaraigosa’s less-than-stellar messaging: “take away…in favor of four that he chose.” It doesn’t matter if the mayor has backed down from the idea or not. The idea that he wanted to only engenders bad will.

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Nor is the tone in that L.A. Times piece unique, as I say. I went to the website of Arts for LA and scrolled through. Did the L.A. creative community do something to really piss off its mayor? Here’s is a post from Apr. 26:

Arts for LA held teleconferences to hear from those directly affected and develop strategies to address the proposed elimination of Los Angeles’ nonprofit lease program.

Now, we’re calling on arts organizations, partners and community stakeholders to advocate to City Council for the proposal to have a full hearing in the Arts, Parks, Health & Aging Committee.

All right, the tone here is relatively benign, but it suggests that the mayor and his policies are the enemy.

Let me be clearer. Here is a piece by my colleague Don Shirley, writing on Apr. 26 in the L.A. Stage Blog, in a pull-n0-punches post with a very harsh headline: Villaraigosa’s Assault on the Arts:

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…Villaraigosa’s attempt to reward his favorites would set a dangerous precedent. As Arts for LA has pointed out, arts groups could feel compelled to lobby the mayor instead of going through the established, equitable route toward grants. …the Villaraigosa Administration has put forward another questionable proposal as a cost-cutting measure. It would charge the groups who contractually operate city-owned facilities as much as half the market value of the rent instead of the $1 a year deals that many of them have…

In a crisis in which every city department is required to take a hit, the impulse behind this rental proposal is at least comprehensible. But the fact that it’s made in conjunction with Villaraigosa’s idea to reward his well-connected friends with special favors makes it all the more odious….

And talk about connect-the-dots sleuthing: Shirley also demonstrates in his piece that one of the intended recipients of the $415,000 had some definite connections to Villaraigosa himself. Again: not good policy, not good messaging.

Also not good is the way Villaraigosa, as noted, went about backing down from his plan to take away $415,000 from arts groups. Here again from the L.A. Times:

“We were overzealous,” Ben Ceja, deputy mayor for budget and finance, told the City Council committee that has been going through the mayor’s budget proposal with each department head, in preparation for making recommendations to the full council.

On what planet is “we were overzealous” a serious admission of bad-faith public arts policy?

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Fortunately, Villaraigosa did catch a bit of a break by the way LA-Ist decided to note the policy change, keeping it to two lines and starting off with “Backpedal much?” Ouch. I also didn’t know, until I started researching, that there is an effort underway to recall Villaraigosa, too. And I didn’t know that the LA Times had been blasting Villaraigosa for his financial irresponsibility or that the Los Angeles Daily News had called on him to resign.

Even with the finances of L.A. in such decrepitude, the real question is why. Why, when L.A. arts funding is such a tiny portion of the overall city budget, is it worth it to Villaraigosa to generate anger from the city’s cultural community? No wonder, last October, there was that mural of Villaraigosa being splattered with red paint and labeled with, shall we say, interesting graffiti.

What follows below is part of a speech Villaraigosa gave in 2007. One is struck by the irony:

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The economists tell us that more than any other city in the nation, LA’s economy is driven by its creative industries — that creative industries account for 445,900 jobs in LA and $140.5 billion in revenue generated per year. Movies, music, art, fashion and design, are an integral part of life for all Angelenos.

Now, I want to reassure you that the City remains a committed and active partner. One that believes strongly in supporting all our organizations and artists, no matter what size.

I am proud that we are one of the last few cities in the country providing unrestricted grants to individual artists. Improving the quality of life in our communities relies so much on preserving independent, local voices.

And I strongly believe these kinds of fellowship and residency grants should continue to form the foundation of the more than $3 million in grants that the Department of Cultural Affairs allocates per year.

Where is the man who said this?