Most State Aid Goes for Public Programs

Over the years, the state government has been good to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

George Deukmejian, whose Armenian heritage made him sensitive to the genocide of minorities, took the initial step in 1985 by allocating $5 million for the creation of the Museum of Tolerance when he was governor.

Since then, through Republican and Democratic gubernatorial administrations and successive Legislatures, the state has appropriated another $45 million for the museum’s public service programs and capital expenditures.

Critics blame the center’s political clout and lobbying for the state’s largesse. During the late ’80s and early ’90s, hardly a week went by that the Los Angeles Times and The Jewish Journal did not receive written complaints from critics, pointing to the close links between the center and the Yeshiva University of Los Angeles and denouncing the public grants as a violation of church-state separation.

Center officials and supporters rebut such criticisms, pointing out that most of the state money flows to the respected Tools for Tolerance, nondenominational public service programs, in which law enforcement officers and educators are taught how to function effectively in a diverse and multicultural society.

The controversy surfaced again this year, triggered by California’s catastrophic fiscal crunch and the vagaries of the state budget-making process. One of the vagaries is that the funds for the teachers’ tolerance program fall under the always-strapped budget of the California Arts Council, rather than the Department of Education.

In Gov. Gray Davis’ 2003-04 budget, he initially proposed $5 million for the Arts Council, down from a high of $30.7 million in 2000-01 and $17.5 million in 2002-03. In the proposed $5 million budget, $1.5 million — or 30 percent — was earmarked for the Wiesenthal Center programs. However, the $5 million was eventually slashed to $1 million, with no funds allocated to the center.

Upon the initial Davis proposal of $5 million, a cry went up from struggling small-town symphonies, theaters and school arts programs over the budget cut and the center’s nearly one-third slice of the shrinking pie.

However, the Arts Council, which bore the brunt of the criticism, had no choice in the matter, said Paul Minicucci, its deputy director. The annual Wiesenthal Center allocation is a budgetary line item fixed by the governor and Legislature beforehand and is treated separately from the Arts Council pot available for actual grants.

In the wake of the slashed Arts Council budget, which now contains no funds for the center, Rabbi Meyer May, executive director and chief fundraiser for the center, took the harsh news from Sacramento personally and warned that the teacher training program’s future is in jeopardy.

Minicucci put the main blame for the perilous state of his agency on the unwillingness of the state government — more so than the people — to provide public support for the arts.

"We now tax Californians 2.7 cents per capita for all public art support," Minicucci said, noting that in Canada, which has 4 million fewer residents than California, the National Arts Council has a budget of $660 million. He said similar figures for European nations are "simply off the charts."

The Skirball Cultural Center, which has received $6.4 million from the state for orientation of mainly public school students at its museum over the past seven years, has also been affected. However, in light of California’s deep financial hole, Uri Herscher, Skirball president and CEO, decided not to apply for state funds. Herscher said he hopes to make up for the loss through private contributions.

Projections for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles are not clear, but for the current calendar year, it has received $42.7 million in city, county, state and federal funds.

The money, in turn, is allocated to the social services provided by such Federation agencies as Vista del Mar, Jewish Family Service, Jewish Vocational Service, Aviva Center, Jewish Big Brothers and Bet Tzedek.

Solace in SoCal

Sergio Edelsztein said he would not have come from Israel to
a cultural exchange in New York. “Los Angeles is so much more open, and it’s
still about regular people — not so much of an establishment,” said the
director of the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv.

Edelsztein was one of seven Israeli artists, curators and
educators who came to Los Angeles Feb. 10-15 to view art and establish
professional dialogues, as part of The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles
Partnership. Participating local institutions included the Los Angeles County
Museum of Art (LACMA), the J. Paul Getty Museum, LACMA Gallery, Craft and Folk
Art Museum, Otis Art Institute and Inner-City Arts.

It may seem an auspicious time to bring Israeli artists over
to America, as Israel has been in a virtual state of war since the beginning of
the second intifada, and America is on the brink of war as well; but in a way,
the timing could not have been better to discover what role museums play amid

“Where you’re heading now, we’ve been for years,” Edelsztein
told Angelenos about living with violence during a panel discussion at LACMA on
the impact of political turmoil on arts institutions. LACMA Lab Director Bob
Sain and others wanted to know how Israelis and their art were affected by the

“A lot of people are still doing personal art,” said Nili
Goren, curator of photography at the Tel Aviv Museum.

Yael Borovich, director and curator of education at the Tel
Aviv Museum of Art said that Israelis — artists and non-artists alike — make a
point to keep on with their normal lives. “We still go to the theater, we go to
museums, we go on living,” she said.

For some, the situation has had indirect influence their
exhibits. For example, Nitza Behroozi, curator for Judaica and folklore at the Eretz
Israel Museum exhibited a Hamsa exhibit shortly after the intifada started in
September 2000. Although the exhibit was planned way before the situation
erupted, she felt it still was positive, considering the tensions. “We wanted
to do something that was about what Jews and Muslims share. We share a lot.”

Similarly, American curators and educators are considering
holding exhibits that defuse the charged political atmosphere. Gabrielle
Tsabag, senior educator from the Skirball is considering doing exhibits on

“The museum’s role is not just to be a showcase but to be
pertinent,” she said. Exhibits on Islam could “possibly be a way to empower the
moderate Muslin community in this country to feel they can come out and speak

War was hardly the only thing the Israeli and American
groups had in common; art discussions — on education, exhibit selection,
technical subjects such as preservation — peppered the frenzied week of

Fowler Museum curator Polly Roberts, led the group through
the “A Saint in the City” exhibit, teaching them about the secret Sufi wisdom
painted into Senegalese street murals.

At the home of Cliff and Mandy Einstein, Ohad Shaaltiel,
artist and Meyerhoff Education Center’s Workshop director in Tel Aviv, was
overjoyed at viewing an Ad Reinhardt painting: “Look at the brushstrokes. I can
see his later work in the brushstrokes,” he said.

In addition to viewing art, the Israelis found practical
lessons to take back home. Nachum Tevet, artist and director of the MFA Program
at Bezalel Academy of Art, fostered artist-in-residence programs. Edelsztein
discovered festivals and other venues for Israeli video artists. Behroozi
learned how textiles are preserved at the Gene Autry Museum of Western

The Los Angeles group began to establish professional
connection that would continue long after the trip ended. Bob Bates, who
founded Inner-City Arts, said that he is willing help the Israelis create
successful arts education programs for kids. “Please stay in touch,” he told
the group repeatedly.

But what the Angelenos might have learned the most from
their Israeli counterparts was how to continue working with art in an
atmosphere of fear, which is relatively new for Americans.

“Yihyeh tov,” Hebrew for “all will be well,” could have been
the motto throughout the week.

“When you come to the museum, you see we’ve always been
threatened, we’ve always struggled, and still look what we did anyway,”
Behroozi said. “So we should take strength from that.”