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Change happens  

By Frank Gruber

March 22, 2010-- The City Council tomorrow night will evaluate revised proposed terms for an "agreement in principle" with the Broad family art foundations for a facility that would house the Broads' collection of contemporary art, offices for the foundations, and an archive open to scholars. The terms have been revised since new City Manager Rod Gould started work and had an earlier version of the deal reviewed.

If a report that appeared last week in "The Architects Newspaper" is to be believed, the exercise is one in futility; according to the report , the Broads are favoring a downtown L.A. site. But the proposed deal is worth looking at in any case, because if the Broads take their art somewhere else, the proposed terms could still provide a template for an agreement with someone else who comes along (if that someone is another billionaire with an art collection looking for a great location for a museum).

I have previously written(read column), that the City should look at the history of the Barnes Foundation, the great collection of art outside of Philadelphia (the subject of a recently-released documentary film), to learn about what can go wrong when a rich art collector sets up a trust to hold his art in perpetuity. But briefly, the problems arise with money (when there's not enough of it) and governance (after the original collector is gone).

Given the concerns about the original deal that Council Member Bobby Shriver expressed in January (read article), I'm sure that tomorrow night the terms of the deal will be well scrutinized. From my point of view, the money part of the deal looks reasonable (provided that the $200 million endowment promised by the Broads is in liquid assets), but I have questions about how who will control the collection after Eli Broad, the current sole trustee, is gone.

The staff report on the proposed deal says that ultimately a fiduciary board will be in control. But there are no details presented, and you know where the Devil is. Before the City Council can approve this deal, it needs to know when the Broad family will relinquish control to a board, and how many members of the board the City will have the right to appoint. The public's investment in the facility will too great for it to be run indefinitely as a solely private institution.

But beyond money and governance, the biggest question I have as a resident relates to the use of the facility. According to the new staff report, we now know that the building will be 110,000 square feet in size, but only 30,000 square feet will be gallery space for the museum. The rest will be offices for the foundations and an archive open to scholars. Personally, I have nothing against an archive, but the City Council and the public have to be clear about what this proposal is about, and whether they want to give this prime location to the Broads for a building that will mostly be inaccessible to the public.

Another thought: since the Broads are soliciting proposals from three competing cities (Beverly Hills along with L.A. and Santa Monica), perhaps the City should solicit alternative proposals itself. What if the City issued a "Request for Proposals" to all the billionaire art collectors in the world telling them that 2.5 acres are available three blocks from the beach?

* * *

Last week I gave a talk in Berkeley at the monthly dinner of the California Studies Association. It was quite a treat for me, and the studiers of California seemed interested: my topic was Santa Monica politics. I focused on the past three decades when the Left has usually been in power. (I gave an earlier version of this talk last fall at the Santa Monica Public Library.)

My thesis is that when the Left, in the form of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), took power in Santa Monica, it was a movement led by activists with an optimistic belief in the power of government to solve social problems and make Santa Monica a better place. But then this progressive view of government was co-opted and the old leaders were supplanted. The Left in Santa Monica came to mean fear of change and antagonism to government, attitudes that are generally associated with the Right.

Longtime readers of this column won't be surprised that this is how I view the past 30 years of Santa Monica politics; they also know that it is my view that early in this decade the trend turned back towards a more genuinely progressive politics.



It was interesting to make my spiel in Berkeley, because in many ways Berkeley has had politics that are similar to those of Santa Monica. The Left has been in charge, there have been big battles over development, and the opponents of development, who consider themselves progressives, have accused the Leftist government, and the city staff, of favoring developers. They fear change to their city.

One of Berkeley's anti-growth activists attended the talk, and she asked some good questions, which I tried to answer and which I have been thinking about since.

This activist objected that I called "fear of change" anti-progressive. Underlying my definition of what constitutes progressive politics is my belief that progressivism necessarily implies a "proactive" attitude towards change. This does mean that a progressive values change for change's sake, but that being a progressive means that one should believe that with rational analysis people can, through collective action, make the future better.

But the Berkeley activist challenged me: why shouldn't progressives be skeptical, fearful even, when purportedly rational thinking, coupled with governmental action, has so often led to change that was for the worse?

I had to acknowledge that often in the past intelligent people with the best of motives made mistakes. From the standpoint of cities, for instance, the urban design ideas put forward by Modernists, ideas that seemed to be the height of rationality, and which were aimed at solving a wide range of serious social problems, turned out to be important contributors (when packaged as "urban renewal") to the catastrophe that struck American cities in the middle of the 20th century.

So -- I had to ask myself, to be a progressive, does that always require being in favor of "doing something", or can one be progressive by doing nothing, or by actively opposing change?

As soon as I formulated that question, however, I realized that it presented a false choice. The reason is that you can't stop change by being against it, because change happens when you oppose change, too. It's just different change. When you don't fear change, and try to shape it, you can at least hope that fewer of the consequences will be unintentional.

This all came to mind over the weekend when I read that the Santa Monica-Malibu school district is trying to persuade L.A. Unified to allow more students from L.A. to continue to attend schools here on permits, because the loss of state revenues if those students leave our schools would be devastating to the District's budget. (See article)

For years, anti-growth politics in Santa Monica have made it hard to build housing. Many locals wanted to keep Santa Monica just as it was. But did they anticipate the change that would come instead: the dependence of the District, to maintain the programs that make our schools so good, on revenues the District receives for educating students from outside the district?

But this doesn't mean that having a pro-active attitude toward change means that you leave your critical facilities at the door. Looking back at Santa Monica's recent history, City Councils in the '70s and '80s approved the building of office parks to replace the industries that were leaving Santa Monica. At the time, they believed these decisions were rational, and it's clear that the healthy local economy we have today is to a great extent based on those decisions.

Yet it's also clear that if half the amount of office development that was built had been built as family-friendly housing, then we would still have a good economy, and presumably have both less of the traffic that bothers the anti-growth people, and more children for our schools.

To be a progressive, it seems to me that you must believe that people can learn from past mistakes and do better in (and for) the future. But you can't just say no.

Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press, and on

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