Does L.A. Need Another Elite Arts Complex?

I’ve been following the LA Times’ classical music critic, Mark Swed, as he champions the development of an elite cultural complex designed by architect Frank Gehry and located next to Disney Hall, the Music Center, The Broad museum, MOCA and the Colburn School in Downtown Los Angeles. This massive new mixed-use commercial complex – The Grand – is meant to tie these disjointed arts venues together, add more performance venues, humanize a sterile stretch of Grand Avenue and provide amenities that expand the area’s destination appeal.

Planning for such a project was well under way when I worked at the Music Center some 20 years ago. My various roles in marketing and sales there often took me into L.A. communities where I learned just how shockingly unengaged the Music Center was with the world around it. Most of the the Black and Hispanic people I met, for example, didn’t know what the venerable old Music Center was or what went on there.

If you read Mark Swed’s articles, you can see this disconnect at play. His commentaries are love letters to Frank Gehry, one of the world’s most elite white architects, and they’re passionate arguments in support of an upscale project designed around traditional Eurocentric arts institutions and their affluent audiences. He’s careful to mention non-traditional arts and audiences, of course, but these mentions are usually tagged-on afterthoughts or obligatory inclusions. Here’s an example from the end of a paragraph extolling the virtues of one of Gehry’s new theaters: “It could just as importantly welcome dance and musical theater created in L.A.’s diverse communities.” 

I’m sure the people who live in those communities will be thrilled that the conspicuously non-diverse planners of this project have condescended to imagine that they might also be included.

Cultural complexes that are designed to serve diverse, multicultural, de-centralized urban populations don’t talk about the people they’re meant to serve as afterthoughts or use the word ‘could’ when discussing what the facility is designed to do. It’s clear that this complex is being built for and will be dependent on a class of Angelenos who spend serious money on tickets to classical concerts, dance, theatre, opera, etc. and who eat at pricey restaurants, shop in trendy stores and stay in fancy hotels.

I have to admit there’s a part of me that finds the whole thing appealing. Marketing events at the Music Center was always an uphill battle. The show had to be really desirable because getting there was a chore and there wasn’t much else to do in the neighborhood. But now with a shiny new mall attached and a broader selection of dining options, it should be much easier to encourage ticket buyers to come. If I were a marketer of cultural events on Grand Avenue, I’d be one of the project’s biggest cheerleaders.

But as an outside observer, I can’t help wondering in this era of Black Lives Matter upheaval if it’s wise to invest so much money in such an elite enterprise that’s relevant to such a narrow slice of the region’s population. All that money being invested in one “center” by one starchitect in one place for one group of affluent arts patrons seems hopelessly out of touch and old-fashioned.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to imagine all that money being invested in a collection of small, local, organic, de-centralized, non-traditional arts venues designed by a diverse group of young architects for an inclusive range of artists and audiences who are products of, and who have a direct, personal investment in the communities they inhabit?

Personally, I think that would be just grand.

 

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