Spokes & Mirrors by Steven Leigh Morris

Light Up the Sky. A Case for Arts Districts in L.A.

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[dropcap]Before[/dropcap] I was hired at the beginning of December by LA STAGE Alliance to run the joint, I recall hearing in the community a fairly common question: So what does LA STAGE actually do? The question was both rhetorical and slightly unfair, because it was doing a lot, from presenting the Ovations Awards (a gigantic task for such a small staff); to publishing this magazine; to running a warehouse co-op (where the community can rent props and costumes at substantially discounted rates); to compiling all kinds of data on who goes to what shows where, and why; to other services, ranging from discounted tickets to convenings and conferences — like LA STAGE Day, which brings together performance companies and individuals for collaborative learning.

Still, the reason for the question of what the organization actually does might have stemmed from some combination of crankiness by the questioners, the reluctance of the organization to articulate a cogent mission and, in light of the cutbacks in donations and grants to all arts organizations (but to service organizations in particular), there was mounting pressure simply to pay the bills. It’s not so easy to think big when you’re trying to keep the lights on.

To the best of my knowledge, I was hired to think big — to articulate a set of values and policies that only an organization like LA STAGE Alliance can do with its bird’s eye view — as well as to keep the lights on. In this column, I’m not writing about the electric bill, but about ways of sending up lights in the sky.

LA STAGE Alliance stands behind a new approach to implement some values the organization has long held dear. In our efforts to support the performing arts infrastructure of Los Angeles, we’ve turned our attention to the following priorities: rent stabilization for arts organizations; engaging youth; diversity; and addressing the problems of traffic density that segregate neighborhoods.


1) Property Values

Rising property values in Southern California are destabilizing arts organizations at an escalating rate — particularly the smaller theaters. The number of these theaters in Los Angeles County has fallen by 47% over 10 years, according to an internal L.A. Weekly study. Their loss is a direct consequence of rising real estate prices. According to Theatre Facts, 2014, a publication of Theatre Communications Group, the average occupancy cost for non-profit theater companies in the U.S. was just under 9% in 2014 and around 12% for theaters with revenues of less than $500K.

“With vacancy rates falling and rents rising we can expect to see growth in prices for Los Angeles commercial property over the next few years,” writes commercial real estate broker Elena Vlasyuk — a spike that has a direct correlation to rents and leases for arts organizations.

The current business model compels the smaller theaters in Los Angeles to commit 35-60% of their budgets to rent (Rogue Machine on Pico: 35-40%; Open Fist: 50-67% — before a new rent increase that administrators claim occurred without notice; Theatre Unleashed: 50%), which is an unsustainable burden. Many of these theaters have histories that go back decades but have recently, with increasing frequency, been forced into homelessness after their rents were increased by up to double on short notice. These theaters are known to spur local businesses, while engaging in school programs that help reduce crime and increase literacy. Their loss diminishes the quality of life in Los Angeles.

2) Youth Engagement

The ongoing, systemic reduction of arts instruction and arts engagement in Southern California’s public school systems — a reality so severe, both the LA County Arts Commission and the New York-based non-profit research institute The Wallace Foundation have dedicated decades of programming to finding remedies for the collapse of arts instruction and engagement in America’s schools. This crisis has also been closely monitored by the excellent arts advocacy organization, Arts For LA. The Wallace Foundation’s research has also demonstrated the link between arts involvement among youth to crime reduction, increased literacy, and higher math scores, and the work of Arts for LA, LA County, the Wallace Foundation and others aim to help create generations of future arts audiences and creators.

3) Diversity

Despite the city of Los Angeles being populated by a majority of ethnic minorities, the work on local stages — from playwrights to directors to designers to actors to the audiences viewing these productions — fails to represent ethnically the population of the neighborhoods in which those productions are presented. This failure has led to a crisis of relevance: a) aging, and predominantly Caucasian audiences are in decline, and b) a surging population of minority youth is not being sufficiently engaged in the arts by either their schools or by the theaters themselves to sustain engagement in the field, partly because these younger generations are not seeing themselves represented on local stages.

4) Mobility Across the Region

Though Angelenos spend fewer hours in their cars than drivers in most other American cities, and though LA also has one of the most extensive and varied public transportation systems, gridlock remains a hard truth. Gridlock combined with electronically devised forms of art and entertainment actively discourages audiences from leaving their homes to travel to live arts events. According to the Texas Transportation Institute’s 2015 Mobility Report, Angelenos who traveled in the peak periods suffered 80 annual hours of delay, up from 72 in 2005, and by far the highest in the nation.


So what can we do about all this? What follows isn’t a pledge to change the world, but a commitment to dedicate our efforts to addressing and redressing these challenges.

With a partnership of the private sector (such as real estate developers), with city, county, and state governments, along with chambers of commerce and tourist bureaus, LA STAGE Alliance will be seeking ways to help create rent-stabilized arts hubs across the city. These hubs would provide centers of industry, education and employment for California’s “creative class”; they would provide affordable live-work spaces for artists and arts organizations; they would mitigate the need for cross-region travel; and they would support local and related businesses.

There are a number of options for how rents might be stabilized — possibly from builders fees to incentives for developers. Another model can be found in the theaters in Atwater Village, which are essentially subsidized by a landlord who understands the boon that performing arts organizations bring to local businesses. The proof isn’t just in the pudding — it’s been published by the NEA and the California Arts Council.

According to a 2015 report by the National Endowment for the Arts:

  • In 2012, arts and cultural production contributed more than $698 billion to the U.S. economy, or 4.32 percent to the U.S. Gross Domestic Product, more than construction ($586.7B) or transportation and warehousing ($464.1B).
  • 4.7 million workers were employed in the production of arts and cultural goods, receiving $334.9 billion in compensation.
  • Arts and cultural spending has a ripple effect on the overall economy, boosting both commodities and jobs. For example, for every 100 jobs created from new demand for the arts, 62 additional jobs are also created.
  • The Bureau of Economic Analysis highlights the Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account in the January edition of the Survey of Current Business, widely read by economists and financial analysts to understand the state of the U.S. economy.

And highlights from a 2004 California Arts Council report, The Arts: A Competitive Advantage for California, II:

  • Nonprofit arts are economic engines in communities both small and large… In California’s large metropolitan areas, the arts make important contributions to urban renewal and development. In Los Angeles County, which has the largest economic impact of the arts in the state, $2 billion is contributed to the economy.
  • Audience spending in California is big business. The state’s 71.2 million arts attendees spend much more than the price of admission — a billion dollars more — which contributes significantly to economic activity in the state’s overall economy. An example of an off-site expenditure is what a family of five spends in addition to arts festival admission and purchases made at the festival. This might include, for example, breakfast on the way to the festival, the cost of a new pair of comfortable walking shoes, parking, fuel and tolls.

Locally, an internal survey performed by LA’s East West Players demonstrated that, with variations depending on the show and the time of year, an average of 60% of that theater’s audiences spent money at local businesses either before or after each performance. If the 220-seat theater were only half-filled, it would mean that on average, 60 people supported local businesses (restaurants, cafes and bars) each night within half a mile of the theater — revenue for businesses, and taxes for the city and the state, that would not have been generated were that theater not in existence. And that’s just one theater out of hundreds across the region.


In this proposed model, performing arts organizations selected to be part of one of these rent-subsidized hubs would commit, in their own way, to working with the public schools for some of their productions, by bringing schoolchildren to some of their productions and going into the schools before or after these performances.

Many of L.A.’s theater companies have forged long-standing relationships with public school systems (24th Street Theatre, A Noise Within, Independent Shakespeare Company, Center Theatre Group), performing for and working with LA’s youth — the social and educational benefits of which have been proven repeatedly.

Research by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies led to the following conclusions:

  • Those children who participate in classroom drama activities develop verbal skills that transfer to new materials not enacted in class. The arts help increase the social capital of economically disadvantaged students.
  • When young children participate in dramatic enactments in the classroom, they engage in activities that have the potential to improve both their text comprehension and their writing proficiency.
  • The National Household Education Survey indicates that involvement in culture-related activities by at-risk preschoolers was linked to increases in their cognitive development. Sustained involvement in theatre arts encourages improvement in the reading proficiency of high school students with low socio-economic status.
  • According to the National Educational Longitudinal Survey (NELS:88), nearly 20 percent more theatre students were reading at high proficiency by the twelfth grade than were their non-theatre peers.
  • According to Lauren Stevenson and Richard Deasy’s comparative analysis of ten low socio-economic status arts-integrated schools that have been recognized for high performance, the arts support literacy development by increasing students’ desire for and commitment to expressing personal meanings. Communicating by creating and performing in the arts often enhances students desire to read, write and speak.

The 2015 NEA report also makes the following claim: “A new question in the 2012 survey revealed that adults who attended performing arts or visited museums as children were three to four times as likely to see shows or visit museums as adults. Exposure to the arts in childhood turns out to be a stronger predictor of adult arts participation than education, gender, age, or income.”

These districts could be avocation and employment centers for California’s rising “creative class,” centers of innovation in design, performance and education. A variant of this idea is in the works in San Diego, a project of two real estate developers, David Malmuth and Pete Garcia, who have the vision to recognize the combined civic and commercial value of arts hubs.


In 2015, Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell made official Hollywood’s “Theatre Row” (a one-mile strip along and adjoining Santa Monica Boulevard) as a civic district — ironically at the very time when the following theaters (with an institutional legacy of 10-25 years, and a resume including stellar reviews for their productions) had been, were at the time being, or are threatened to be driven out of Hollywood, and surrounding districts. The reason for these theaters’ eviction/relocation is two-fold: exponential rent-increases, and spaces being sold for urban development:

Theatre/Theater (Hollywood and mid-town Los Angeles) The Unknown Theatre (Hollywood), Actors’ Gang (Hollywood), West Coast Ensemble (Hollywood), Open Fist Theatre (Hollywood), Celebration Theatre (Hollywood), Art/Works (Hollywood), The Elephant Theatre (Hollywood), MET Theatre (Hollywood), Gene Dynarski Theatre (Hollywood) Company of Angels (Hollywood and Downtown), The Ark Theatre (West L.A.), The Celtic Arts Center (West Hollywood), The Lost Studio (Mid-Wilshire), Theatre Banshee (Burbank), Zoo District (Downtown), The LOFT Ensemble (Downtown), Gascon Center Theatre (Culver City), the New American Theatre (Westlake), Odyssey Theatre (West LA), Playwrights’ Arena (mid-town Los Angeles and Downtown) The Powerhouse Theatre (Santa Monica), Bilingual Foundation of the Arts (East Los Angeles), Interact Theatre Company (North Hollywood), and the Secret Rose Theatre (North Hollywood).

Of all these theaters, only the Odyssey, the Actors’ Gang, and Celebration Theatre have so far relocated with some modicum of stability, while the Elephant Theatre, Theatre Asylum and Elephant Lab complex was purchased by a private patron — the father of Sacred Fools Theater Company’s managing director — in order to secure stability for that company after it was preparing to leave its East Hollywood location after almost 20-years, because of the increasingly unaffordable rent there. Rogue Machine recently announced its decision to relocate temporarily from mid-city to Hollywood because of the threat of an unsustainable rent increase.

Nor have these exiled theaters been replaced by newcomers. According to the aforementioned study by the L.A. Weekly, the number of theater companies in the Los Angeles environs declined by 47% between the years of 2004 and 2014, a decade that corresponds to the soaring values of commercial real estate.


The subsidy of these hubs would take the coordination of many moving parts, and necessitate a kind of lobbying consortium on its behalf. LA STAGE Alliance could help broker the coordination of these entities: real estate developers, the landlords/theater building owners, the qualified theaters/dance companies, chambers of commerce, LA’s Tourism Bureau, and city, county and state arts support agencies, granting agencies and individual funders. If Hollywood were to be an initial hub (which makes sense, given the city’s designation of “Theatre Row” in that district), the aim thereafter is to establish hubs throughout the region, in, say, North Hollywood, Downtown/Little Tokyo, the Westside, the Eastside, South Los Angeles and the South Bay and/or in outlying underserved communities.

Variations of this idea are already being tested in Atwater Village and in Santa Monica (Bergamot Station) and downtown San Diego, thanks to the efforts of real estate developers David Malmuth and Pete Garcia.

And according to westerncity.com, “a dozen states nationwide have enacted official cultural-district designations, some with remarkable measurable results. An analysis of Maryland’s arts and entertainment districts notes a 17 percent growth in new jobs, goods and services, and wages from new business in the state’s arts and entertainment districts between 2008 and 2010 — a significant achievement during the recession.


Within the first six months of 2016, LA STAGE Alliance will launch a “pre-planning” phase for this idea, during which we’ll be building alliances and gathering data — anecdotal and empirical — to ensure that the arguments for the plan are irrefutable and persuasive.

The following phase will be for planning, working with organizational and individual partners to hammer out the logistics of how such a plan might unfold. This phase will be followed by an implementation phase, which would start to set in motion the physical realities of the new arts hubs.

We’re currently in the pre-planning phase, discovering and meeting with potential partners, and gathering as much information as we can. The idea of our stage community sending up a single searchlight to attract residents and visitors doesn’t seem to fit with our sprawling traffic-clogged city. But if we can work together to send up several such lights into the night sky, beams that converge high above the L.A. basin, we will have accomplished something remarkable. That’s the aim, and it’s a big aim. Right now, we’re just trying to figure out, in all senses of the phrase, how the power works.

The benefits of live performance to both the quality of the culture and the business environment have been measured and reported time and time again. Now comes the gentle art of persuasion.

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven is the Executive Director of LA STAGE Alliance, and is the founding editor of the community-funded digital arts venture Stage Raw (www.stageraw.com). Morris chaired the Jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012, and served on that Jury in 2011. He received the Critic of the Year prize for his print reviews by the National Entertainment Journalism Awards in 2011.