Months after many art spaces in Los Angeles reopened with safety measures in place, all facilities overseen by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) remain closed, with no timeline for reopening or even a roadmap for how to get there. Interviews with several current and former DCA employees point to a leadership crisis and lack of transparency that have left many of these community-focused spaces to operate with very little support.
Lukas Geronimas was excited for his first institutional solo exhibition at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (LAMAG) when it was confirmed at the end of 2019. Established in 1954, the gallery is located in Barnsdall Park in East Hollywood, next to Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic 1921 Hollyhock House, which became the city’s first Unesco World Heritage Site in 2019.
The gallery shuttered at the onset of Covid-19 in early 2020, and Geronimas’s show was postponed from summer 2020 to summer 2022. Then in summer 2021, as Covid-19 cases dropped, Geronimas learned his show would be opening that autumn. When Covid-19 cases began surging again in early autumn, LAMAG stuck to the new schedule despite still being closed to the public.
“If they were adamant about the integrity of work, they would have held off until they had real answers [about reopening],” says Geronimas, whose sculptures explore art history and institutional critique. “It seemed crazy they couldn’t figure out a way to have a limited number of people through safely.”
His show ran from 14 October-12 December without the public ever being able to see it in person. Geronimas emailed staff at LAMAG and DCA decrying the shuttered show as “only theatre”, but received no satisfactory response. “I wanted to figure out who had the power to postpone shows until the space could open,” he says. “No one had that ability. It was just mechanics at play—totally Kafkaesque.”
That may be because the department’s machinery is largely unmanned. Former LAMAG director Isabelle Lutterodt left to become the deputy director of the California African American Museum last December, and DCA general manager Danielle Brazell resigned abruptly a month earlier (Daniel Tarica is serving as acting general manager). LAMAG also lost both of its curators: Steven Wong left in early 2021 to become the director of the Vincent Price Art Museum; Ciara Moloney moved back to Ireland not long before. No curators have been hired to replace them, partly because of a hiring freeze across all municipal departments that was lifted last October.
“The Department of Cultural Affairs is working closely with its staff and city agencies to reopen DCA’s sites throughout the city,” a department spokesperson writes over email. “Due to the recent Covid-19 variant, DCA continues to proceed with caution to ensure the safety of staff and visitors.”
Lack of communication
In addition to LAMAG, DCA administers almost two dozen community and performing arts spaces around the city, including the Watts Towers Arts Center and the William Grant Still Arts Center. Many of these are their communities’ only art spaces and offer arts classes, exhibitions and performances. DCA employees contacted by The Art Newspaper, almost all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, expressed frustration over a longstanding lack of communication and support from both DCA and City Hall, patterns they say have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“Last year, we were told July, then that moved to September, then January, now they’re saying maybe March or April [to reopen],” says Ruben Amavizca, director of the Frida Kahlo Theater, a partner organisation of the DCA and one of the only spaces in the city focusing on Spanish-language theatre. “If at least we could have guidelines, ‘This is what’s going to happen, this is what you need for reopening,’ but we don’t have that.”
In addition to lack of communication on reopening guidelines, DCA employees say normal funding streams have been delayed, making it harder to create online programming in the interim.
“We were told to pivot online, but our budgets weren’t being approved,” says a current DCA worker. “We really pushed ourselves, tried to do what we could, but we were getting no support from Cultural Affairs.” DCA’s budget for fiscal year 2021-22 is $20.3m.
“The department has worked throughout the pandemic to ensure that budgeted funding is available for DCA to provide arts and cultural programming,” the DCA spokesperson writes over email. “However, due to expenditure controls implemented on a citywide basis at various points during the pandemic, the department has been limited in its use of these resources.”