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Out of the museum, into the city

From Pico to Pacoima, Danielle Brazell wants LA’s public art to stay local

The first time I met Danielle Brazell, the General Manager of LA’s Department of Cultural Affairs, it was ostensibly to talk about her role and aspirations for the department. I assumed she would promote her agency’s agenda, but the conversation quickly flipped. She began to ask me questions, and they were incisive: Should LA strive to have a cohesive design aesthetic? What can her department do to make it easier to apply for arts grants? What are the barriers arts organizations face from the city?

Standing at nearly six feet tall and usually clad in a stylish dress and the black-rimmed eyeglasses typically found on architects and gallerinas, Brazell cuts a striking figure among more staid government bureaucrats. As we talked, the cacophony of the restaurant began to fade. She scribbled notes on the paper tablecloth (which she later ripped and took back to the office). She asked follow-up questions. She prodded. And most importantly, she listened. I felt heard.

This is a skill Brazell likely learned not just as LA’s leading arts advocate, appointed by Mayor Garcetti in 2014, but also honed for years as a performance artist. Brazell’s path to arts advocacy began in Los Angeles’s public housing and has led to running a $42 million portfolio of facilities and programming to support arts and cultural activities. The Department of Cultural Affairs’s purview is broad, and includes the oversight of public art, arts education, grantmaking to artists, and community arts programming.

Danielle Brazell outside of LA City Hall.

While LA’s arts infrastructure has grown exponentially in the past decade, most of that investment has been centered on museums and cultural institutions, such as The Broad in Downtown LA, the expansion of the Hammer Museum in Westwood, and the imminent debut of the Marciano Art Foundation in Windsor Square. Brazell applauds LA’s increasing global visibility for the visual arts, but worries there is a simultaneous disinvestment at the community level, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

Brazell believes her department’s responsibility is to help sustain homegrown local creative communities, nurture local talent, and assist in building professional resources. “Part of our job as public stewards is to have systems in place that are fair and transparent,” she says.

Brazell also envisions more public art programs like last year’s CURRENT: LA Water Biennial. The show’s pieces, created by 13 artists and artist teams, explored our city’s relationship to water. Unlike most biennials, which are typically curated in a central location, CURRENT:LA inverted the model, electing to spread the artworks across the city and across communities. Ultimately, Brazell’s mission is to “recalibrate the way hyperlocal culture thrives.”

Brazell was born in Paris—Illinois, that is, a tiny town nearly four hours south of Chicago by car in 1966—but her parents packed up the family and moved to Los Angeles when she was six months old. The California dream didn’t work out quite as expected. Brazell’s parents divorced not long after moving to Los Angeles and she was raised, with her older sister and younger brother, primarily by her single mother, in a turbulent environment. “We were on welfare and lived in public housing,” says Brazell. “There was a lot of violence and chaos.” During Brazell’s childhood, her family was evicted, they often lacked food, and their house burned down. These were the formative experiences that taught her “stability is a luxury.”

Brazell’s mother had debilitating depression, yet worked on an assembly line for three decades before her job was exported. “She had a good Midwestern work ethic and instilled that in me,” says Brazell, who also cites her mother’s strong belief in the democratic process and the value of civic engagement as serving her well as both an artist and advocate for the arts.

Her father, who frequently took his kids camping along the California shoreline, teaching them how to mark a trail and pick edible berries, was more of a free spirit. “He instilled a love of nature and beauty,” recalls Brazell. “We had some great times with him, and other times he wasn’t able to show up—he wasn’t able to fulfill his role as a parent.” His absence, coupled with her mother’s depression, often left Brazell and her siblings vulnerable to the turmoil in their environment.

By the time Brazell was a teenager, she had already been expelled from middle school and dropped out of high school. A friend encouraged her to return to school and take an easy class—drama. That class sparked a love for the theater and Brazell began apprenticing at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica in the early 1990s.

In between working in the box office and volunteering as an usher, she took performance workshops and became a performance artist and teacher. She eventually co-founded an experimental performance collective and toured internationally. She also met her long-term partner, Chilly Nathan, in that decade. “It was a total post-punk ’90s love story,” laughs Brazell. The two broke up for over a decade before reuniting eight years ago. Today they live near Glendale with their cats, Abraham and Wiggles.

Brazell made the move from practicing artist to arts advocate in 2004, as director of special projects for the Screen Actors Guild Foundation. She held the position for two years, gaining the administrative skills needed to run a large organization, and went on to become the executive director for the nonprofit Arts for LA.

Danielle Brazell asks public school students to raise their hands if it's their first time inside the LA City Council chambers. "This is your chamber. You belong here," she tells them.

When she transitioned from nonprofit advocacy to Garcetti’s staff in 2014, her peers lauded the hire. Sofia Klatzker, who replaced Brazell as executive director of Arts for LA, was relieved to have an artist and advocate running the department. “It was a great move because we have someone who understands both sides of the culture,” she says. Brazell’s colleagues are also quick to point to her empathy, an attribute not usually remarked upon in government officials.

Brazell is contemplative about the instability of her childhood and credits it for her perspective today. She says that growing up in primarily Latinx and black communities offered her insight into the disparities of identity at an early age. “I learned which communities were valued and which were not,” she says. One of her guiding principles is increasing cultural and aesthetic equity and access to the arts in communities that have historically been underserved; that means that part of her mission is reforming the systems in place meant to serve LA’s creative communities.

As an example, Brazell mentions a DCA grant application that was nearly 30 pages and only available in English. “Huge swaths of our population would not even consider, nor have to ability to apply based on the requirements,” she says. To provide a more agile funding mechanism, the Department of Cultural Affairs launched an Arts Activation Fund grant meant to work in collaboration with LA’s Great Streets program, which seeks to create more livable and accessible streets. The application form is a more manageable two pages and takes just one to three months to process, rather than the typical funding cycle of one to two years from application to execution.

The grants are monthly and hyperlocal, focused on creative placemaking events (mostly organized by local businesses in the designated streets) and pop-up projects by local artists. There’s been a series of events celebrating the cultural impact of barbershops along Pico Boulevard. First Thursdays in Little Ethiopia offered a series of printmaking and pottery workshops. And in Pacoima, the DCA partnered with the Urban Land Institute to launch an arts incubator.

The CURRENT:LA biennial, funded by a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, matched by the DCA’s Arts Development Fee Program and an additional grant, stretched from Hansen Dam in the northeast San Fernando Valley to South LA Wetlands Park and San Pedro. There were also four major hubs along the LA River, and an accompanying series of nearly 100 events spread across the sites over the course of a month.

The expansiveness of the biennial was intentional, designed to help address aesthetic inequality. Rather than bemoaning LA’s sprawl, the biennial embraced it. Most people “couldn’t see all of the work,” says Brazell. “It was so vast.” Unlike most biennials, which tends to attract out-of-town visitors and tourists, CURRENT:LA was rooted in a desire to attract local residents, particularly in communities that have been deprived of public art investment.

A decentralized approach to public art isn’t a silver bullet; residents in some neighborhoods, like Boyle Heights and areas of South LA, say “artwashing” accelerates gentrification, making areas more palatable to the middle class. Brazell is sensitive to that concern. She mulls the impact cultural investment—and more importantly, capital—has on a community’s residents, but admits she doesn’t have all the answers. “What we know is that disconnected communities have a higher displacement ratio,” she says. “If we help support the expression of culture, if we can increase the economic opportunity, will that community have a higher ratio of staying in place? I would bet yes.”

Danielle Brazell poses with some of the students who benefit from the NEA Big Read program on the front steps of LA City Hall.

Since the election, Brazell is also pondering the role of the arts in a city where nearly two in five residents are foreign-born, yet living under an administration that is openly hostile to immigrants, and in a place that still hasn’t declared itself a sanctuary city. “People are afraid and feel attacked,” she says. While art can’t address deportation directly, her goal is to create an environment where residents “can live their full creative potential. Our work needs to move people out of that [fear].”

Expanding the scope of the arts into every aspect of civic life—transportation, housing, health—is her ultimate mission, and she believes each should share the common goal of improving Angelenos’ quality of life. Brazell’s ambition is vast, as she seeks to “change the way our city supports culture” with a hyperlocal model that is connected to a larger civic ecosystem. “We want to build [art] infrastructure where there isn’t any,” explains Brazell. “We don’t want to helicopter in.”

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler

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