In City Hall parlance, “CONSENT CALENDAR: (All items will be considered and approved in one motion unless removed by a Council member for discussion.)” As if to tacitly preclude citizen questions or discussion, the City places the Consent Calendar at the top of the City Council agenda and thus it is heard and approved at the official beginning of the meeting at 5:45 p.m. when few, if any citizens are present, because, immediately after it approves the consent calendar, the Council goes into closed session, and only masochists choose to arrive at 5:45 for the Consent Calendar and then wait in Council chambers for an hour or two for the real meeting to begin. Over the years, we have been endlessly fascinated by what City Hall thinks does not need or will not benefit from a public airing. There were 13 items on the Consent Calendar for last week’s meeting. And, in our view, several were definitely in need of explanation and some conversation. For instance, 1-E, called for the Council to “authorize the Purchasing Agent to issue purchase orders to commercial staffing services for various City Departments for an estimated annual expenditure of $1 million” for “temporary staffing services.”Surely, the addition of $1 million to the City’s already hefty payroll deserved at least a cursory conversation, or, perhaps, a simple explanation! And what about 1-G? It was a staff recommendation to authorize the City Manager “to negotiate and execute a contract with PC Imaging in the amount of $750,000 to scan, index and import permit and plan document images.” Didn’t anyone wonder how many permit and plan document images can be scanned, indexed and imported for $750,000? Especially since, according to 1-J, it’s only going cost $172,000 “to upgrade the cooling system’s electrical service at the Civic Auditorium.” On the other hand, according to 1-L, the City of Santa Monica is going to pay Federal Network Services $1,310,000 for a Public Video Security System “to increase security in the Third Street Promenade and the Santa Monica Pier.” That item was pulled for discussion, but it was brief and superficial, and did not touch on the profound questions that are implicit in such surveillance. Still, in our view, the most foolish Consent Calendar item at last week’s City Council meeting, called for the hiring of a cultural consultant. It was approved without discussion. City staff recommended, in its words, “that the City Council authorize the City Manager to negotiate and execute a professional services agreement with the Cultural + Planning Group in the amount of $90,000 to produce a community cultural plan that will establish Santa Monica’s priorities in terms of the arts and culture, as well as the methods for achieving these objectives. Cultural + Planning Group, a Los Angeles-based firm with extensive national experience in the development of cultural plans, was selected through a competitive process.” The staff report went on to explain, “A community cultural plan engages a wide cross section of the community in taking stock of available cultural assets, needs, opportunities, and resources, and establishing a collective vision for the future. Santa Monica last undertook a cultural planning process in 1997. Since then a majority of that early plan’s recommendations have been implemented, the community has grown and evolved tremendously, and the demand for local cultural programming has increased. In recent surveys, community members have identified expanded cultural opportunities as a priority.“With this in mind, both Council and residents identified development of a new community cultural plan as a high priority during the FY 2005-06 City budget process, and funding for this project was included in the City Budget adopted by Council on June 21, 2005. In September 2005, staff issued a request for proposals (RFP) for a consultant or consultant team to develop a community cultural plan. The RFP was distributed nationally to more than 15 firms and individual consultants with expertise in cultural and arts planning. Five companies submitted proposals for this project which were reviewed by a panel made up of staff from the Community and Cultural Services, Resource Management, and Planning and Community Development Departments. Three finalists were interviewed in December 2005. “The panel unanimously recommended the Cultural + Planning Group be awarded this project based on the overall quality and comprehensive nature of their proposal, the firm’s clear understanding of the project and the qualifications and experience of lead project staff and sub-consultants. The key personnel on this project have developed innovative and successful plans for communities throughout the country, including most recently in Pasadena, San Antonio and San Diego. Along with their national expertise, they bring to the project a clear understanding of the specific issues confronting California and Los Angeles County as all of the principals are based in California.“It is recommended that the City Council authorize the City Manager to negotiate and execute a contract with the Cultural + Planning Group in the amount of $90,000 to develop a cultural plan for Santa Monica.”The staff is being somewhat disingenuous when it says that the since the 1997 cultural planning was made, “the community has grown and evolved tremendously, and the demand for local cultural programming has increased.” Since the number of residents has remained more or less constant since 1997, and residents were then and, by our lights, still are highly evolved, we can only conclude that “the community” that has “grown and evolved tremendously” is some more amorphous and transient group, such as, say, tourists. Tourists in search of “local cultural programming” can visit dozens of first-rate art galleries, the Santa Monica Museum of Art and the California Heritage Museum of Art, attend plays, concerts and dance performances at such theaters as Edgemar Center for the Arts, the Powerhouse, Ruskin Group Theater, Santa Monica Playhouse and Miles Memorial Playhouse, as well as a gang of theaters just down the road in Venice, choose from more than a dozen motion pictures, including classics at the American Cinematheque’s Aero, hear poetry readings and see documentary films at coffee houses hear lectures at Santa Monica College, and so on. In other words, Santa Monica is not currently suffering an arts and cultural shortfall. And it is literally surrounded by Los Angeles, a world class arts and culture capital, with half a dozen great museums, and another dozen smaller and more specialized museums, as well as art galleries, Walt Disney Hall, UCLA’s Royce Hall, and any number of smaller concert halls, large and small theaters – legitimate and equity waiver, dozens of theatrical and dance companies, musical groups, and so on, and they are as diverse as the city itself. It would be ludicrous, and bootless, for Santa Monica to attempt to replicate, much less compete with L.A.’s extraordinary arts and culture scene. According to the staff, in recent surveys, “community members have identified expanded cultural opportunities as a priority.” Since one could literally spend every day and night enjoying “cultural opportunities” in Santa Monica right now, we can only conclude that either those “community members” don’t know what’s going on, or don’t like it. According to the staff report, “A community cultural plan engages a wide cross section of the community in taking stock of available cultural assets, needs, opportunities, and resources, and establishing a collective vision for the future.” The notion of a “collective vision” makes us shudder, as it is antithetical to art. Made to order art is just merchandise. Art can’t and shouldn’t be mandated. It is a wholly individual undertaking. Even in so-called “schools” of art, i.e. impressionism, or theater or dance companies, there may be collaboration, but the play or the dance begins as one person’s vision. According to the staff report, the consultant is charged with producing “a community cultural plan that will establish Santa Monica’s priorities in terms of the arts and culture, as well as the methods for achieving the objectives.”The community can establish all the priorities it wishes, but what follows will depend entirely on what artists – one at a time, in all media – make. For example, the “public art” that the City has commissioned over the years varies wildly – from a few great works to some perfectly awful stuff. What we are getting at is that art and culture can not be ordered or imposed. The most that we as a community can do is to provide a congenial arena in which artists, and therefore the arts, can flourish. That means ensuring that artists can afford to live and work here, that galleries, theaters, bookstores and the other places where art is shown and performed can not only operate but flourish here, and that the City provides or supports the requisite facilities for making and showing art. In sum, making a community “cultural plan” and establishing “priorities” is not simply pointless, it’s counter-productive, as it slams the door on possibility and surprise The best we can do, indeed all we can do, if we are serious, is to cherish the artists, and trust them. We know that’s a heretical notion in this most pragmatic of nations, but, hey, this is Santa Monica.
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