The Municipal Arts Department, established in 1925, was the result of Los Angeles’s early civic attempts at addressing artistic decisions confronting the growing metropolis through its Municipal Art Commission, established in 1911. Although the Municipal Arts Department claimed an office in City Hall, and exhibitions were staged within its corridors, there was no significant civic arts identity or public outreach in the arts until Kenneth Ross became its director in 1949. Ross began by implementing All City Outdoor Arts Festivals, the first of which took place in 1950, and art shows in recreation centers, schools, and hospitals across the city. Ross had cultivated Ahmanson as a patron of the Municipal Arts Department—specifically the All City Outdoor Arts Festivals, for which he instituted a purchase-prize award for the first-place work, thus sponsoring winning artworks for inclusion in the City’s collection.
By the time the third All City Outdoor Arts Festival took place in 1953, the City had pulled its funding amid debates on municipal support for modern art. Yet in 1956, Ross mounted the festival again with a mere $250 from the City, supplemented by funding from Ahmanson’s Home Savings, a direct appeal to then-Mayor Norris Poulson, and the economically priced contractor services of artist Edward Kienholz (1927-1994) who built the temporary display structures for the art. The event, then held in Barnsdall Park, featured approximately 1,800 artworks and over the course of a single weekend drew more than 18,000 visitors. More than 750 artists displayed their work, and continuous demonstrations of crafts, as well as music and art programs were offered for both children and adults. The success of the festival made it evident that public interest was undeniable.
Ross recognized the need for a central art institution from which to establish a cultural base. In a strategic move, Ross set about negotiating for what would become the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery. He traveled to New York to visit with Frank Lloyd Wright at the temporary pavilion Wright had erected in 1953 for his retrospective, “Sixty Years of Living Architecture: The Works of Frank Lloyd Wright” (located on the site of the future Guggenheim Museum), and secured Los Angeles as the show’s only other U.S. stop the following year, and Wright to build the exhibition pavilion that would be the first site for the Municipal Art Gallery
LAMAG and Barnsdall continued to expand through the 1960s. Ross worked with the Junior League to open the Junior Arts Center on Olive Hill in 1967 and made plans for a new, larger gallery to replace the Wright-designed “temporary” pavilion built in 1954 and meant to last a single summer. Because of Ross’s determination, Los Angeles finally had a permanent municipal gallery that opened in 1971.
Kenneth Ross stated in 1952, when advocating for the Municipal Arts Department, “One may question whether any cultural activity should be part of city government…It is only logical that government concern itself with the total citizen and his needs in the development of a well-rounded community…[T]here is a genuine interest in and a real need for increased opportunities for public enjoyment and participation in the arts here under city sponsorship…The policy of the department has been to present, whenever possible, truly great works of art, to sponsor local artists, to encourage public participation in the arts and to reach as many people as possible.”
The cultural heritage generated from this legacy is ours to keep, care for, and ultimately bequeath. Let’s hope that Los Angeles as a trendsetter, and eventually every city, can live up to the challenge.
Adapted from “Civic Virtue: Intersections of Art, Agency, and Activism” – Pilar Tompkins Rivas