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This Saturday, the students graduating from the School of Art and Architecture at UCLA will be welcomed into their new professional lives by a woman who is currently at the helm of the most powerful cultural organization in greater Los Angeles.
Danielle Brazell is the manager of the Department of Cultural Affairs for the city and she is perhaps the most passionate champion of the arts this city has seen. Brazell was appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti to lead the DCA in 2014 after she spent nine years as the executive director of arts for L.A., an advocacy organization promoting cultural programs throughout Los Angeles.
Brazell is a self-proclaimed “valley girl” who was raised by a single mother in Reseda and claims that “the arts completely saved my life.” She started out as an apprentice at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, Calif. 25 years ago. Brazell then succeeded Tim Miller as the artistic director of Highways Performance Space before taking the position of director of special projects for the Screen Actors Guild Foundation. She now oversees a staff of over 120 people with an annual budget of $36 million. And she, herself, has never worn a cap and gown.
Brazell recently helped secure coveted funds from the Bloomberg Philanthropies through their Public Art Challenge. She worked closely with Mayor Garcetti and her DCA staff to present a winning proposal — one of only four cities in the country to do so — which will result in the upcoming Public Art Biennial entitled Current: LA. This first-ever citywide outdoor art installation deals with the pressing issue of water use in southern California.
According to Brazell: “It became very clear that we needed to do something about water and, of course, the drought. But we also want to do things city-wide. Often times, you see a concentration of cultural activity in a community like we are seeing in this downtown revitalization, so there is a tremendous amount of resources going into one component of the city. But as a result we have almost disinvested in local communities. So can we actually bring art and do it in a hyper-local frame and almost do it disaggregated through the city, but still connect it to place, to this complicated, highly charged, highly political idea of the role that water plays in our region. And we are really looking at investing in public space along the L.A. River. We want more opportunities for communities to gather, for families to have really positive relationships.”
Brazell feels fortunate to work with a civic leader like Mayor Garcetti, who is an artist himself — a jazz pianist, composer and the creator of a riveting Instagram feed @ericgarcetti. Brazell and her team had the following concept: “Why don’t we invert the Biennial model, which is usually based on an art market, and let’s do something extraordinary for our city. Let’s do something for our people and let’s have artists respond to that. And the mayor loved it. He said this is the one — go with gusto. And this is actually very bold for a mayor to say: ‘I get it.’ It’s conceptual, it’s going to be hard — it’s not going to be a big spectacle thing. It’s actually going to be intimate, thought-provoking and sometimes charged exhibition. But Hampton Dam, the origins of the L.A. River in Canoga Park, the south L.A. wetlands — these are going to be opportunities for people to explore Los Angeles; learn about water in really new ways; and it is going to give artists this new opportunity to respond to this critical issue. So we are catalyzing creativity to solve and address some of our city’s most pressing challenges.”
Another progressive program under Brazell’s umbrella is an artist residency with the Department of Transportation. “We’re actually tying it to Vision Zero and saying can we develop arts intervention strategies to help traffic engineers rethink how cars and people get from point A to point B — that’s JPL stuff. Let’s bring a creative catalyst into an agency to help transform it from the inside and pilot it on the outside.”
The DCA director is most passionate about advancing arts education in the 81 school districts within the city boundaries. “When we think about the pathways for these kids to compete in a 21st-century workplace, it is all about creativity, all about collaboration, all about communication and critical thinking. That is a systemic problem for our city that we, as a creative community, need to solve, because our global competitive edge counts on them. We need to bring them into the industries that are fueling our city.”
As to how to accomplish these goals, the path is clear and difficult: “We need to be sure that every teacher that is getting their credential has an arts class and they actually have to know the power of the arts, so they know that they can influence that. We need arts education across the board, and we also need to galvanize our youth art centers and our community arts centers. The city of L.A. has 30-plus community art centers that are providing youth arts education weekends and after-school programs. The Sony Pictures Media Arts Program is one of them. We have had a 20-plus-year partnership with Sony and with CalArts operating this great animation studio. And they are doing this in some of the most high-poverty, low-income communities: Sun Valley, Canoga, Watts. I want to see more programs like that. This is where we actually change people’s lives — moving from one direction to another way. We need to think about creative expression as a tool for self-realization. If we don’t give it to everybody, we are creating part of an unequal society, and I think we are perpetuating a very limited industry because so much of that becomes the workforce development side.”
Brazell’s dedication to the enormous tasks in front of her is clear. Wrapping up an overview of all the current DCA initiatives and her hopes for what the 2024 Olympic Bid could mean for the arts in L.A., Brazell sums up her perspective: “You do realize that I think artists can save the world?”
For more information about the programs at the L.A. Department of Cultural Affairs, visit culturela.org.
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