How will California's arts institutions recover?

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How will California's arts institutions recover?
The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, a futuristic $1 billion building being financed by George Lucas, under construction in Exposition Park in Los Angeles, May 6, 2021. The city’s cultural institutions, buffeted by the pandemic, will have to recover without the help of Eli Broad, the transformational benefactor who died last month. Alex Welsh/The New York Times.

by Jill Cowan and Adam Nagourney

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- As California emerges from the pandemic, we’re beginning to get hints of the ways that life will be different — permanently.

Arts institutions of all shapes and sizes are in particular flux right now as they contend with the collision of long-brewing funding challenges and lingering effects of prolonged shutdowns.

My colleague Adam Nagourney, who recently started a new beat covering West Coast cultural affairs, wrote about how that’s playing out in Los Angeles, especially after the death last month of Eli Broad, the towering philanthropist who, before his retirement three years ago, had done so much to shape the arts landscape.

I asked Adam about his new role and about the article. Here’s our conversation:

Tell us a little about your new beat. What will you be covering?

I am going to be covering West Coast cultural affairs. It’s a fairly broad assignment; I’ll be writing about the arts and music scene, how central it is to the culture and civic life of Los Angeles and the state, and how it influences the country.

Part of that will be examining the arts in the context of philanthropy, politics and civic culture. The beat covers the West beyond Los Angeles, so it will include San Francisco, Washington state, as well as Nevada and Arizona. (Did I mention Hawaii? Consider it mentioned.)

You were most recently the Los Angeles bureau chief for eight years. What did you learn about California or LA that you’re hoping to carry forward into your new job?

I came into the job with the goal of not falling into the trap of writing about all these Southern California stereotypes: you know, LA as this sun-dappled land of shallow people who don’t read books, could care less about politics and spend way too much time in cars. (Well, there may be some truth to that last one.)

My years here just underlined to me how that is not true. This is a vastly complex part of the country — culturally and intellectually vibrant, politically engaged and adventurous. One of the points in the story is that LA is now recognized as a global cultural capital. The question now is how will it confront the challenge of the pandemic as it starts to rebuild.

Your latest piece explores the status of some of LA’s biggest cultural institutions as they emerge from the pandemic. What will you be watching most closely in the recovery?

I’ll be watching three things.

1. Attendance: Will people feel safe enough to go out? The Hollywood Bowl announced this week that it is starting shows again. There were long virtual lines for tickets, but we’ll see how that is going forward. The real question here — and in other cities, like New York — is, will people be willing to go to indoor spaces, from Disney Hall to the LA Opera to any one of 50 small theaters scattered around area? We won’t know until the fall. The numbers here — COVID transmission, hospitalization and deaths — are way down, while vaccinations are up, so that’s encouraging.

2. Money: Arts institutions are struggling and in fact were scrapping for dollars even before. There is a lot of competition for philanthropic dollars coming out of this pandemic.

3. Transit: A critical question is the success of the $120 billion program to build and expand the mass transit system here. Traffic has increasingly been one of the biggest obstacles to getting people to concert and theater halls, particularly in downtown Los Angeles. That could really change when these new lines begin opening up. Case in point: A new metro stop is opening across the street from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, coinciding with the date that the new $650 million David Geffen Galleries are scheduled to open.

And, of course, Eli Broad, whom you described as “part billionaire philanthropist, part civic bulldozer,” recently died, leaving big shoes to fill. But as you and others have noted, there are questions about whether that mode of arts patronage by a singular kingmaker is good for the Los Angeles of the future. So what might be next?

This is a key and nuanced question: Not only, “Is there another Eli Broad waiting in the wings?” but more, “Is that the future of fundraising here? Does this region need — or want — that kind of powerful figure moving forward?”

I think a corollary of that is whether some of the new wealth in California — tech money, to use the shorthand — is going to start flowing into the arts. It really hasn’t happened yet in a big way in LA, but that could sure change given what’s happened with the stock market since January. You could find a cast of new characters writing checks, rather than some single domineering figure.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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