Hollywood sign (via Bobby Magee on Flickr)

As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade; when life cancels all your public cultural events, make micro-grants for artists. That’s the philosophy behind a beneficent policy shuffle in Los Angeles. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, LA City Council unanimously approved two motions that repurpose arts fees paid by developers in support of now-canceled or planned cultural events as small-dollar grants to artists, arts organizations, and live performance spaces that have been negatively affected or threatened by the pandemic.

These art fees are part of the Private Arts Development Fee Program, through which the city requires that each owner of a private development project, valued at $500,000 or more, pay an arts fee based on the square footage of the building or 1% of the project’s Building and Safety permit valuation, whichever is lower.

According to one of the motions approved last week, the Department of Cultural Affairs will now reallocate $368,810 in arts development funding designated for District 4 — which houses a long list of neighborhoods, including Hollywood — to support artists and nonprofit arts organizations in the district. The motion was introduced late last month by District 4 Councilman David Ryu.

“Los Angeles is the creative capital of the world, but our creatives are suffering right now,” Ryu said, in a statement accompanying the introduction of his motion in early April. “The economic turmoil caused by the Coronavirus pandemic has put thousands out of work and arts nonprofits at risk of permanent closure — all while we have arts funds sitting idle. We are in an economic emergency, and we need to repurpose these funds now to save our creative economy from permanent, lasting damage.”

At that time, a coalition of 147 arts organizations in Los Angeles signed a letter of the legislation, calling for it to be expanded citywide. Last week, City Council also approved an additional $181,663 in District 4 funds so that the program could be extended to other districts, as well as a second motion, that will enable District 2 Council member Paul Krekorian to reallocate $200,000 of his district’s arts development fees. District 2’s emergency grant program is aimed at helping live performing arts venues with fewer than 50 employees, and is designed to support the theaters clustered in the North Hollywood district.

“One-in-six jobs in Los Angeles are in the creative sector, and despite the enormity of the industry, COVID-19 has effectively brought all jobs in the arts and culture field to a standstill,” said Winifred Neisser, Board Chair of Arts for LA, in Ryu’s press statement. “Thank you, Councilmember Ryu, for taking swift action to support the vital artists and organizations devastated by the outbreak.”

These actions stand in sharp contrast to other cities. Early this month, Philadelphia’s mayor Jim Kenny sent a devastating message to its arts organizations, announcing a revised 2021 budget via video address that would completely eliminate funds for the city’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy. If passed, the city’s $4.4 million budget for arts and culture will be reduced to zero — a decision met with shock, anger, and sadness by Philadelphia’s cultural workers and supporters.

As Ryu’s model shows, budgeting is a balancing act that does not have to come at the expense of the creative class, but perhaps requires more flexible thinking about existing resources and the necessity of building agile models within city governance. Such shows of support — or lack thereof — send a clear message to artists and arts organizations about the value placed on them by cities, and may affect the choices creative laborers make about where to migrate their talents.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...