While many other cities are turning abandoned civic sites into cultural havens to attract artists and tourists, Los Angeles is apparently divesting itself of its artists and literary writers. I’ve received several unpleasant new emails within the last 48 hours. They evoke memories of our regional “brain drain” of the 70s. Many artists and writers, some having only begun their careers, were leaving Los Angeles. My posture was that they should stay and fight. “In New York I can make a living at what I do,” was one writer’s retort. I had no comeback. “In its support of the arts, California is 51st in the nation,” is a quote I recall hearing from former California Poet Laureate Al Young. If anyone is shocked by that or similar statements, they need to factor in Los Angeles—where the arts have long been occluded if not downright eclipsed by Hollywood glitz—with mayors who tend to run either hot or cold on the recurring issues of funding, space and recognition.

At a poetry gathering this weekend, it was announced to resounding boos that, as a belt-tightening move, the L.A. Department of Cultural Affairs is doffing its literature program grants for poets and writers. Terry Wolverton of Writers At Work pledged that she will join the battle that is, apparently, only a skirmish in the ongoing culture wars that have characterized the Southland for over forty years. The next afternoon, I received notice from PEN Center USA that the city’s Administrator’s Office has proposed eliminating the $1.00 per-year leases for 116 nonprofits, which includes roughly 16 arts organizations. An article in the Los Angeles Times today elaborated on the situation. Such an action will devastate many worthy arts organizations including L.A.’s solitary literary center Beyond Baroque which is housed in the Old Town Hall in Venice, California.  Founded in 1966, it is “one of the United States' leading independent Literary/Arts Centers” and is at the core of L.A. literary discourse, offering readings, free workshops, publishing, a bookstore and a tremendous archive of recordings, photographs and chapbooks. Beyond Baroque has sponsored readings by John Ashbery, Raymond Carver, Ed Dorn, Vincent Ferrini, Allen Ginsberg, Alice Notley, and Patti Smith—its doors open to poets from around the world, fostering a rich and invaluable dialogue that has long transcended the city’s borders.

“Why are we fighting? What is the agenda here?”

According to Fred Dewey, the current director, the price of mobilization is exhaustion. Artists may be used to gentrify and revive communities, but in Los Angeles “there’s a bias against artists, even in film work. The only art allowed is commercial art.”  This is the third time under his directorship that poets have rallied to save Beyond Baroque. Each time was successful; and in the aftermath, the operating assumption was that our literary community had earned permanent housing. Apparently not.

“It’s like (landlords) sending tenants eviction notices for fun! It’s so cruel and mean-spirited. It’s got to stop,” says Dewey.

How many times must this war be fought? My guess? Until the city matures and declares the contributions of its writers, artists and poets vital to the life of Los Angeles and the world. Here’s what PEN says:

WE CAN STOP THIS WITH YOUR HELP. Make your voice heard by taking action below NOW. Send a letter to the LA City Council urging them to have a full hearing on the fiscal impact, human and community impact this policy will have on the lives of Angelenos: http://www.artsforla.org/news/action_alert_la_citys_nonprofit_lease_program

A big thank you to Arts For LA for their partnership on helping with this critical issue.


Originally Published: April 29th, 2010

Poet and writer Wanda Coleman was a blatantly humanist artist who won much critical acclaim for her unusually prescient and often innovative work, but who struggled to make a living from her craft. In discussing “my life in poetry,” More magazine, April 2005, Camille Paglia said of Coleman: “She’s not...