As head of the Performing Arts Center of L.A.
County, Joanne Kozberg sees the city's theaters as a critical component of downtown revitalization
It's a tough time for the arts downtown. With the pending departure of the L.A. Times and Arco, two of the greatest supporters of the arts are gone. The Walt Disney Concert Hall, long hailed as a catalyst for the downtown arts scene, just broke ground after a seven-year delay and completion isn't anticipated until 2002. The arts venues on Grand Avenue stand like fortresses above the street, which is practically deserted after dark, and daytime traffic from construction in the area could intimidate even the most passionate arts lover.
But Joanne Kozberg sees beyond that. Having just completed her first year as president of the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County, the organization that oversees L.A.'s major downtown performing venues such as the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Ahmanson Theater (as well as the coming Disney Hall), Kozberg is working fervently toward a day when families will walk down Grand Avenue, picnic in a newly designed urban park and experience the best of dance, music and theater from around the world.
Despite such idyllic visions, it's been a rocky year for Kozberg, who served as the secretary of state and consumer affairs under former Gov. Pete Wilson. Willem Wijnbergen, director of the philharmonic, left under mysterious circumstances and was quickly replaced by Debora Borda of the New York Philharmonic. And with the groundbreaking of the Disney Hall, critics decried the lack of a plan to connect the cultural institutes on Grand Avenue.
But Kozberg remains hopeful. The Canadian native said she believes the arts can not only unite Angelenos, but bring them streaming back into an enlivened downtown.
Question: With the sale of the L.A. Times and Arco, there's been a lot of talk about the death of downtown. Do you really believe the arts can bring the area back to life?
Answer: I think the arts and this center have always been a catalyst to redevelopment. If you look at what brings individuals into the downtown after 5 p.m. and on the weekends, it's coming to the Performing Arts Center.
Now you multiply that, because you have the Colburn School, you have MOCA and the library, and you have a Grand Avenue that's really being defined by arts institutions. If you look out our window, you can see all these cranes in the air heralding the coming of the cathedral. We really will have a weekend environment. So I think we are a catalyst, there's no question. And the Walt Disney Concert Hall will drive tourists into the heart of the city.
Q: What else is in the works to make that happen?
A: We will be modernizing our 38-year-old structures. When the center was built, Hope Street was the main door. It was an era in the '60s when you had windswept plazas and edifices on the hill. Now it's Grand Avenue that has become the pedestrian hope for downtown. We hope to bring the center down to Grand Avenue to create more activity, create a better pedestrian space, green the plaza so we have people coming out earlier to performances, and so that we can create festivals on the weekends.
Q: When will this be accomplished?
A: Well, we call it Vision 2002 because that's when the Walt Disney Concert Hall will open. If that's anything like the wild success of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, we will see a huge number of tourists coming into the heart of our city to see the music hall.
Q: How much tougher does reaching your goal become in light of the sale of the Times?
A: Losing the Times, you do lose a tremendous corporate donor, a group of individuals who have seen the leadership roles that the arts do play. But it is a fait accompli and we hope that the new owners of the Times will have the same sense of responsibility, and indeed, I have heard they do.
Q: Your first year here has certainly had its fair share of challenges. What concrete progress are you seeing?
A: We've broken ground and continue construction of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which will really activate downtown. At the Performing Arts Center, we have merged the fund-raising and education entities. We're bringing in the Bolshoy in June, and we are making a commitment to dance because, with the Walt Disney Concert Hall, we'll have the opportunity to free up the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion so we can showcase some of the great touring dance companies. They had been bypassing the community.
Q: Another challenge of yours has been attracting younger patrons. How has that been going?
A: That is a huge initiative of not only the center but all of the resident companies. We need to assure that we are on the radar screen of young people because we're not just competing against other centers, we're competing against other forms of entertainment, so we will be trying to demonstrate our relevance and importance.
With our name change to the Performing Arts Center we were the Music Center, which was a misnomer we know we have to give up the old role and move to the new. So we're going to be doing a lot of marketing research to find out what people treasure about this place and what kinds of changes they want.
Q: But in terms of developing a marketing message to attract young people, what would you say?
A: I don't think you have to tell them anything. I think the minute they experience one of our performances, it's meaningful. What we did was take arts out of education after 1978 you don't know what you're missing if you don't experience it. All you have to do is have a young person attend an arts event. I think we all remember our first arts experience. It's a stepping point in all of our lives.
Q: How do you envision L.A. 20 years from now?
A: Wonderful arts institutions networking with one another so we can build strengths and showcase each other. Also, I see a collaboration with our tourism industry because I think they've learned that arts can be a magnet for increased tourism. So I would see this as a vibrant part of our economy for the same reason you look at travel sections and see music festivals being held around the world. We should have the same thing in Los Angeles.
Q: How will the Performing Arts Center fit into that?
A: Our goal is to bring in more world performances. We will be a city where there is a majority of minorities, and the arts are an incredible tool at building cross-cultural understanding. We have a commitment to explore new art forms that relate to growing and different communities.
Q: How did you first become interested in the arts?
A: The connection was with an uncle in New York who loved the arts and would take me to the theater. The greatest moments I would have were sitting in the audience. As a young person, one of the plays that meant the most to me was "West Side Story." The emotion and the retelling of a tale that was so historic in a contemporary context and the dance just caught me.
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.