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Hollywood's Barnsdall Art Park Up for Grabs. Can a Public-Private Partnership Succeed?

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The Hollyhock House at Barnsdall Art Park | Photo by William Opdyke via LAist Featured Photos on Flickr

The Hollyhock House at Barnsdall Art Park | Photo by William Opdyke via LAist Featured Photos on Flickr
Ed. Note: This article by Joy Hepp comes via Spot.Us, a nonprofit project from the Center for Media Change that focuses on community funded reporting.

It’s the first night of Aaron Donovan’s beginning still-life painting class at Barnsdall Art Center, an eclectic community art center on the southeast edge of Barnsdall Art Park in East Hollywood. Adult students arrive with canvases and brushes at the ready. One woman brings persimmons from her garden for the class to paint. Donovan is carefully placing the fruit on bright-colored plates as a middle-aged gentleman with a cell phone on his hip arrives. Donovan asks him if he’s a painter.

“I guess I’m a painter,” the man says.

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“I always like to think there are two types of people in this world - the artists and the non-artists,” Donovan replies. “The non-artists just won’t admit that they are artists. So, everybody’s an artist.”

At least that’s the goal at Barnsdall: to bring out the inner artist in any community member who wants to give art a try.

But that mission might be close to the end. Because of budgetary constraints, Los Angeles’ Department of Cultural Affairs temporarily shut down art classes at Barnsdall in March. Citizens and students fought to have classes reinstated, but now Barnsdall’s artists face the battle again.

Los Angeles is in the process of trying to reduce a $485 million deficit. One way to close a small part of the gap? To transition city-owned cultural facilities to public/private partnerships, first discussed in 2006 and an idea now back up for discussion. Affected would be 11 parks throughout the city in addition to the four facilities Barnsdall Art Park comprises (Barnsdall Art Center, Barnsdall Junior Arts Center, Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery and Barnsdall Gallery Theatre.) Requests for proposal are due Nov. 15.

Students who take classes at the art centers, artists who hang their creations at the gallery, and patrons who see the gallery and surrounding green space as a refuge from harried city life are urging city leaders to maintain the sanctity of their artistic haven.

“(Barnsdall) has qualities of grace and scale and expanse and location that are really unmatchable,” says Fred Chuang, one of hundreds of local up-and-coming artists who have shown their art at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (LAMAG). “I understand that there is a commensurate budget savings, but I can’t quite believe that that mere savings is adequate for the loss of the facility for the general public.”

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City officials maintain that their goal is to continue to uphold Barnsdall’s history as a thriving public art center in Los Angeles, keeping arts education affordable. In order for this to happen the city needs to look for new options, they say.

“We’re really looking at arts organizations that have a history of public programming and that have a good financial balance sheet,” says Olga Garay, Department of Cultural Affairs president. “What we want to do is find partners that will allow us to continue providing services and programming for the community.”

The public/private partnership proposal surfaced in early 2010 around the same time the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, which receives the majority of its funding from the city’s transit occupancy tax, announced massive cutbacks. In June the City Council approved the creation of a working group made up of members of the DCA and various city administrators charged with creating recommendations for formal requests for proposal. According to these recommendations, DCA’s cost of running the four Barnsdall facilities is nearly $800,000 a year. The bulk of the cost goes toward park employee salaries and should the city cease to run Barnsdall, employees either would be terminated or relocated to a different facility. Under the current system, parking and admission to the gallery is free, classes cost as little as $24 for an eight-week course, and theater administrators are able to take chances on productions that might not find homes elsewhere.

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Opponents of the proposed partnerships say that if a nonprofit comes in to run the park, the public won’t have as much of a say in what goes on at Barnsdall. A new entity will be accountable to its nonprofit status and its bottom line. It could charge for parking and admission, and lose sight of the local arts and theater scene.

“As it is right now if we end up getting run by a nonprofit, that means the city doesn’t have any vested interest in the arts in Los Angeles,” says Scott Canty, director and curator of LAMAG. “They’re letting someone else do the work for them and that’s sad.”

In September, students, teachers, patrons and neighbors appeared at Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee meetings at Los Angeles City Hall to lend a public voice to the RFP process. Donovan was one of many who used the public-comment portion of the meetings to express that the services and programming offered at Barnsdall are invaluable. He spoke about one quadriplegic student who began walking again after years of taking painting classes and of a West African refugee who struggled to afford paintbrushes but made it to class every week.

“If we give up on the disabled, the poor, the minorities, society pays a giant, giant price.”

In 1927, the city accepted the deed to a hilltop estate and its surrounding property at North Vermont Avenue and North Sunset Boulevard from oil heiress Aline Barnsdall under the stipulation that the land be used for arts education purposes. That estate, known as Hollyhock House, was the first Los Angeles project for famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

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“You see them all here,” Barnsdall told a Los Angeles Times columnist in 1928, referring to the emerging city sprawling before them, after returning from a trip to Greece. “Shrines of industry, shrines to education, shrines to religion, shrines to politics, shrines to war, shrines to Aphrodite; but where is the Parthenon and the Erechtheum, the shrine of art?”

Kate Devine Brady has the same wry smile and dreamy eyes as did Barnsdall, her great-grandmother, and has portrayed her both on film and on stage. The San Fernando Valley art teacher says her ancestor had a unique vision.

“Aline was a woman who took risks. She would use billboards to inform and educate the public when newspapers wouldn’t publish stories,” she says. “I think that’s where a lot of people are afraid of privatization. (They worry) that the education part will be tossed to the wind.”

An ardent feminist and friend of anarchist Emma Goodman, Barnsdall had views on society that often were deemed revolutionary. As such, her relationship with early 20th-century Los Angeles was tumultuous at best. At mid-century, a proper art museum opened, and her vision of offering art classes to youth was fulfilled. What Brady is sure of is that Barnsdall would have wanted as many people as possible to find joy up on the hill. That might mean “just a picnic on the lawn, taking an art class or seeing some theater or an artist who for the very first time hangs art in the gallery,” she says.

But now that’s all in flux. Brady says the last few times she’s visited the park it has lacked the verve it once had. It’s possible that a new private entity could breathe life into the facilities, but she and other community members say that if a private caretaker moves in, it’s important for Barnsdall to continue to focus on local, diverse, up-and-coming artists.

“The beauty of Barnsdall is that they have emerging artists from all walks of life and female artists, which I think Aline would really be rooting for because she was very much a feminist,” Brady says.

Desirae Hepp (no relation to the reporter) says Barnsdall is one of the few places in the city that would have allowed her to utilize a closet-sized room to install “Corazon,” an abstract fabric and light installation depicting the inside of the human body. She was among an eclectic group of local artists selected to present at the biennial Los Angeles Juried Exhibition at the LAMAG.

“I like being able to go in and see the kind of artists that are like me,” she said. “I don’t see why would there be a public/private partnership if the private partner didn’t want any influence. Not that it’s necessarily negative, but we need the diversity.”

Chuang showed “Station Retablo,” three paintings situated into an altar in a tribute to the fallen Station Fire firefighters, at the same exhibition.

He expressed his concerns for what could potentially happen if a large nonprofit, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, takes over.

“I would never have an opportunity to show if (Barnsdall) was run by MOCA and had a national or international focus,” he adds. “I’m worried that if it goes to MOCA or some other high-profile organization that has a different horizon or perspective that we have a lot of people here in Los Angeles that wouldn’t get the same exposure.”

Until potential bidders manifest, it’s difficult to predict exactly what the future will hold for Barnsdall. However, Claire Knowlton, executive director of the McGroarty Arts Center in North Hollywood, has seen what can happen when a public and private art worlds merge. The Arts Center has been managed by the private Friends of McGroarty Arts Center since 1995.

“People who are still around refer to (that time) like it was a divorce,” she says.

However, Knowlton says McGroarty is now thriving and able to offer more services to the community than ever. She thinks there is potential for Barnsdall to achieve similar success but hopes it doesn’t take 15 years for it to happen.

“The idea of having large nonprofits coming in from other parts of the city, or perhaps other parts of the state ― that is not what I support,” she says. “But a community-run grassroots organization model is effective and one that we have demonstrated can work very well.” -- Joy Hepp