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Los Angeles
Los Angeles at dusk as seen from on top of City Hall. The city has grown to a population nearing 4 million. (Francine Orr, Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles, more than most cities, has defined itself by continual bursts of expansion and an unflagging optimism about its place in the world.

But as the city has grown to a population nearing 4 million, we’ve neglected some major holes in the civic fabric. Los Angeles has become as well known for its high-profile architectural and urban-planning failures — for the buildings, institutions and public spaces we can’t seem to get right — as for its innovations or breakthroughs.

This is particularly true for our civic architecture, which has never matched the ambition and allure of the region’s private houses and high-end commercial enclaves.

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Christopher Hawthorne
Los Angeles Times

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Detail of Meg Saligman’s “Common Threads” (1997; restored 2011). (Photo: Steve Weinik/City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program)

Art preservation is tricky even under ideal circumstances, which generally involve close controls for light, temperature, humidity and other hazards. Eliminate those and you have some idea of the challenge that street-mural preservation faces. The only surviving exterior work in the U.S. by the renowned Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, Los Angeles’s “América Tropical” (1932), is only now receiving a roof. Ironically, its longevity is due to a paint-over that preserved it from the ravages of nature. Most murals, in a world of unfriendly ordinances and inevitable shifts in the urban landscape, are not so fortunate. Happily, a number of national and local organizations have recently mobilized to ensure that the preservation of murals need not be any more difficult than rain, snow and sun already render it.

The organization Heritage Preservation launched a “Rescue Public Murals” initiative in December 2006, using funding from the Getty Conservation Institute and the National Endowment for the Arts. It first conducted a national assessment, paying particular attention, according to project director Kristen Laise, to “cities which had a long history of mural creation or of issues with preservation.” Then it selected for examination 16 murals in locations ranging from a commuter rail underpass to an abandoned church, and depicting topics from the end of the Marcos dictatorship to the laborers of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

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Anthony Paletta
Wall Street Journal


Christo and his wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, who died in November, with a rendering of “Over the River” in February 2009. (Photo: Dominic Favre/European PressPhoto Agency)

Assessing a work of art using in-depth technical analysis sounds a bit like writing a scholarly treatise about a joke. If you peer inside too deeply, armed with numbers and equations, does “Mona Lisa” still dazzle? And is “A man walks into a bar…” still funny?

But that, in a nutshell, is the question that faces the artist Christo and a giant federal agency called the Bureau of Land Management. On Friday, the bureau issued what may be the first ever draft environmental impact statement purely about art — specifically a project called “Over the River,” which Christo has proposed building along a stretch of the Arkansas River in southern Colorado.

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Kirk Johnson
New York Times


The Apollo Gallery at the Louvre in Paris was renovated with money from Total, the oil company. (Photo: Remy de la Mauviniere/Associated Press)

Last week the shadow culture secretary for Britain’s Conservative Party, Jeremy Hunt, promised to introduce “a U.S.-style culture of philanthropy” if the Tories come to power in the coming election. Speaking before the State of the Arts conference in London, Mr. Hunt foresaw a “golden age” of tax breaks to encourage private donations and help cut back on government spending.

“I do believe in state funding,” he reassured his no doubt partly skeptical audience, “but we are committed to a mixed-economy funding model for the arts.” He added that the party’s shadow chancellor, George Osborne, agreed with him.

And in Paris last month the Pompidou museum was shut down by a strike for more than two weeks, and other museums for several days, because France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, also wants to reduce arts support. He has proposed making cuts in the whole state workforce, with its jobs for life and generous pensions, including at cultural institutions like the Louvre, the palace of Versailles and the National Library. The plan is for only one worker to replace every two who retire. The Pompidou Center’s labor union estimates that the museum would lose some 200 jobs in the next decade as a result.

French museums are supposed to raise money if they want more workers. In short, to Americanize the system, as Mr. Hunt is proposing in Britain.

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Michael Kimmelman
New York Times

Feeling a little low? Ill even? Today Americans for the Arts announced and released its new National Arts Index, and you can see, the latest number isn’t good:

…I’m glad Americans for the Arts is trying something. It devised the National Arts Index by taking into account 76 “equal-weighted, national-level indicators of arts activity.” And the group says that makes it “one of the largest data sets about the arts industries ever assembled.”

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Judith H. Dobrzynski
Real Clear Arts

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Rose Art Museum, former home of the Brandeis art collection (Photo: Guardian)

The debate continues. Here are two different takes on whether colleges should have the right to sell their art collections.

Avoiding the Next Brandeis
Scott Jaschik
Inside Higher Ed

Brandeis Wasn’t Wrong
Rudolph H. Weingartner
Inside Higher Ed

graffiti
Bill Greene/Globe Staff

The blue lights were flashing as the Boston Police car approached the traffic island in Copley Square. Christos Hamawi, standing by with his brushes and paints, didn’t panic. He reached for his permit.

He didn’t just have permission from the city to paint the gray electrical box outside the Westin Hotel. He had been hired for the job. Hamawi, 36, is one of about two dozen local artists brought in by the Boston Arts Commission as part of its PaintBox program.

Modeled after similar efforts in Cambridge, Somerville, and other cities, the program started slowly last year with 13 boxes but has expanded to more than 40.

“The idea is that it would deter graffiti because these boxes wouldn’t be a blank canvas,’’ said Karin Goodfellow, staff director of the commission. “But I like it not just specifically because of graffiti. My interest is more in getting local artists to create art on the streets they’re living.’’

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Geoff Edgers
Boston Globe

A lack of money sure can bring out the creative qualities in a person.

This was a recurring mantra at forums for arts organizations and funders at Crain’s Future of New York City: Performing Arts conference Wednesday, which was co-sponsored by Columbia University’s School of the Arts…

“It’s not about writing a check anymore,” said Gayle Jennings-O’Byrne, vice president of the foundation. “We need to change the conversation between funders and fundees…”

The need in the arts community has never been so great, added Kate Levin, the city’s commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs. Endowments are down as much as 25%, she said, while attendance is up 5%.

“We are dealing with a sector whose workforce is shrinking, just when there’s a real appetite for what arts and cultural organizations have to offer” Ms. Levin said.

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Lisa Fickenscher and Hilary Potkewitz
Crain’s New York

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When word leaked Wednesday that highly regarded Jujamcyn Theaters impresario Rocco Landesman would be tapped by President Obama as the next chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, I was startled. Not because a commercial theatrical producer in New York would be running a federal agency that is all about the nonprofit sector. For-profit and not-for-profit arts organizations are symbiotic entities in the American cultural system, and achievement matters most.

No, what startled me was that the NEA was making any news at all. I’d pretty much forgotten the place exists.

As far as the visual arts go, the NEA has been a cipher for years — nearly two decades, in fact, ever since the Ronald Reagan wing of the Republican Party decided the little agency would make a big squishy target in a long-range plan to dismantle the New Deal philosophy of government ushered in by Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, had considerable success as a culture warrior when she was appointed as Reagan’s chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1986 — and she didn’t have the general American indifference to the arts as a sharp arrow in her conservative think-tank-funded quiver. (In a typical ideological slur, Chairman Cheney decried a PBS series, “The Africans,” as “propaganda” because it described Africa’s historic problems as a consequence of European exploitation.)

Slaughtering the NEA, the NEH’s sister agency, would be a piece of cake.

And so it proved to be. There’s no need to rehearse the long, shabby history of events. Just go to the agency’s website and take a gander at the most recent list of visual art exhibition grants to find out how effectively neutered the NEA has been.

I’ve got nothing against crafts, folk art, decorative design or Great Depression and Cold War-era photography, which got most funds in the last go-round. But, as a representation of abundant and wide-ranging artistic accomplishment, this abbreviated list (14 grants! $1 million!) is pathetic.
We live in a nation of more than 300 million people. What’s left out from the list is far more telling than what’s included.

“Government has no business supporting the arts,” goes the mindless (but politically effective) opposition mantra to all things NEA. To which one can only shake one’s head and reply: Name one great civilization in world history whose government did not support the arts. The question isn’t if, but how.

The how is specific to — and difficult in — a democracy. It may well be that the NEA’s organizational structure, established in 1965, is as out of date as a Pontiac GTO. It may be that a top-to-bottom overhaul is in order, or that something as yet untried (even not yet conceived) would be a vast improvement.

Conversely, a simple return to former practices might be in order.

Clearly, though, the current NEA hodgepodge of conservative-appeasement programs is nonsensical. Should an arts endowment really be funding programs that encourage citizens to read? Sorting out that cockamamie mess will be one pressing task for the new chairman.

Whatever the case, I was frankly embarrassed by the arts community’s ecstatic recent response to a $50-million temporary bump in the NEA’s budget, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — a.k.a. the economic stimulus package. (The NEA’s regular budget for 2009 is $145 million; Obama requested $161 million for 2010 — still down from 1992 levels.) Politeness is one thing, but crumbs are crumbs.

According to a study by Americans for the Arts, across the nation 100,000 nonprofit arts organizations support more than 5 million jobs and return nearly $30 billion in government revenue every year. Giving some creative thought to the ways an appropriately funded arts endowment can most productively interact with a huge American industry that doesn’t have any (or shouldn’t have any) profit motive is long overdue. For years, most agency attention has instead been directed at hanging on by its fingernails.

The answers to these questions are not just fiscal, either. Administrative moves can have a major impact on the nation’s cultural life. If, for example, endowment exhibition grants were restricted to art museums that make their collections open and permanently free to the public, much the way American libraries don’t charge patrons to browse in the stacks, we could begin to take seriously institutional claims that the unique visual experiences offered by art were their highest priority.

People deeply knowledgeable about theater will be required to fully address Landesman’s particular strengths and weaknesses as a nominee for NEA chairman; as an art critic, that’s not me.

But this much is certain: Any guy who could bring Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” to Broadway, as Landesman did at his company’s Walter Kerr Theatre in 1993, represents a big step in the right direction.
The reason is simple. The NEA cannot be successful, whatever its format, unless successful people working full-time in the arts are addressing the powerful work of their most talented peers. A rigorous peer-review system is as critical to the success of the National Endowment for the Arts as it is to the National Science Foundation — which, incidentally, received a total appropriation of $6.5 billion for fiscal year 2009.

Now those ain’t crumbs.

Christopher Knight
Los Angeles Times

lincoln center
Lincoln Center, New York

There it was again: another example of a logical fallacy in the way arts institutions think about appealing to new audiences (translation — younger and more diverse audiences). Somewhere along the way, reaching out to new audiences was equated with new works, as if those in a museum, or in a dance company’s or orchestra’s repertoire, couldn’t possibly attract the hip young people that seem to be the holy grail of cultural organizations. In The New York Times Arts & Leisure section this weekend, writing about the 50th anniversary of Lincoln Center, Tony Tommasini exhibited a very mild version of this affliction:

It could also be argued that the complex’s citadel-like feeling has deterred potential audiences. With its institutional appearance, Lincoln Center does not look at first glance like a place for innovative or experimental work.

We saw the same kind of “logic” earlier this year when some critics expressed disappointment that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had chosen Thomas P. Campbell — a tapestries curator, for heaven’s sake — as its new director. What could that possibly forbode, they asked, for displaying contemporary art and luring new audiences to 1000 Fifth Avenue?

To me, this is not only a fallacy…

— who says young, diverse audience always prefer new works over the old ones? — it’s also condescending, as if all work done before their time is inaccessible and/or off-putting to young people.

This is simply lazy thinking. It’s also wrong to assume that today’s young people won’t, as they age, find these “old” works appealing. (To cite one example from a previous generation, me. I remember, in my 20’s, buying tickets to the opera in San Francisco — Don Giovanni, I think it was — and disliking it. I didn’t try again until about eight years later, when I lived in London and a date took me to Salome at Covent Garden. I liked it much more, but did not become a convert until years later. Now I not only go when I can, but listen to opera at home. And I doubt that I am alone on this.)

Before a problem is solved, the issue must be framed properly. Right now, it’s not. Before jumping through hoops to attract more people — and, frequently, dumbing down their offerings as a result — cultural institutions should spend more time thinking through the problem. They’re using a simple equation — new works = new audiences — when, metaphorically, differential calculus is in order.

Judith H. Dobrzynski
Real Clear Arts