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Joel Wachs -- L.A. roots but a New Yorker now

Joel Wachs hasn't been an Angeleno for a dozen years, but he still has his key to the city. And he feels its political tremors. L.A., where he made his political bones on the City Council, has just sworn in a new mayor — a brass ring he tried three times to grab. Only three other men served longer on the City Council than Wachs, but after 30 years as that rare political creature — a social liberal and fiscal conservative — he moved east in 2001, to head the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. The man who once set aside a third of his city salary for art now dispenses millions in grants — some of them to the city he once served.

You're a New Yorker now, but you supported Eric Garcetti — with a check.

I didn't think I would get involved at first because I liked three of the people running.

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Why did you decide on Garcetti?

I'm incredibly impressed with Eric. I think this is the most intelligent person in that office in my lifetime.

I was shocked when I saw the money coming in to the independent committees, particularly from the DWP [from the IBEW Union, Local 18]. That would have had such negative consequences if they succeeded. That made me get off my fanny and write a check.

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I like Wendy [Greuel], she worked for me, I endorsed her as my successor. I think she could be independent. The [union] wasn't giving Wendy money because they liked Wendy. They were giving her money because they wanted to get Eric. They wanted to make him pay a price for helping to lead some of the pension reforms. They were going to teach him a lesson.

Let me give you a parallel. Eighty percent of the people in this country want [gun] background checks, yet you have 46 senators voting against it because of the power of the NRA. Where does the power come from? The senator who votes against [background checks] doesn't need $1 million from the NRA. The senator is afraid the NRA will target him in the next election.

If the [union] could defeat Eric over pension reform, everyone in City Hall is going to be afraid the [union] is going to go after them.

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Are New Yorkers more engaged in local politics than Angelenos?

No, the vote turnout is not so good here in the city elections. The interest in New York is more on the mayoralty because the mayor has much greater powers than in Los Angeles. I don't see people here more engaged at the very local level; it might even be less. In Manhattan, we're all just going our own way, living in big high-rises, not so much involved in issues [like] are the trees being trimmed, are the streets being paved. But in New York, people rarely complain about paying taxes. The emphasis here is on getting their money's worth. That's a difference; in L.A., everyone seems to feel they've paid enough taxes.

You watched Proposition 8 from afar, and now the federal courts have overturned it.

I'm proud to have been the author of the comprehensive [city] law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace, in public facilities, in government, back in the late '70s. In the early '80s we passed a law preventing discrimination against HIV-positive people. We have been in the forefront in L.A., so it was kind of hurtful that Proposition 8 passed. That said, if the Supreme Court hadn't acted as it did, if Proposition 8 were on the ballot in California today, enough change has taken place that Proposition 8 would lose.

You were not formally "out" as a politician.

When I first ran for office, no one at any level of government in the U.S. had been elected as an openly gay person. I ran before Harvey Milk. Everybody knew, because I never shied away from taking on gay issues. I fought entrapment by police, I rode in the [gay pride parade]. We had the first gay [campaign] fundraiser known in Los Angeles, in 1971. Everybody paid cash. Nobody wanted their names on any list. That's how different it was then.

You left L.A. a dozen years ago to become the director of the Andy Warhol Foundation. How do you like the job and living vertically?

I'm loving every minute of it. There's obviously a completely different lifestyle. I don't have a pool and a backyard and all that nice light and space. I live in two rooms on the 30th floor of a high-rise. But I have Central Park across the street. It's such a democratizing place; it's accessible for everyone. Every morning I walk in the park and it's beautiful at all times of the year.

I'm convinced that New York's street life and night life exist partly because who wants to go home to tiny places.

There's no question that the density means you spend much less time in your home. When I walk outside in the morning, it's wow, there's so much happening, people coming and going and everything you want to do is very accessible. I walk to almost everything. I love not driving. I've never driven a car once in Manhattan in the 11 years I've lived here. I think New Yorkers tend to drink a lot more than Angelenos because they don't have [drink and drive] constraints. When I have a glass of wine, I just walk home!

How has your job changed since you began?

When I came here, we were giving away about $3.5 million in grants, and now we're giving away between $13 [million] and $14 million a year. We've been able to have a real impact on nonprofit arts organizations — not just in major cities. In many cases we're the primary supporter of an arts foundation in a bright red state. Even during the recession, when the economy was bad, you would still find in every community — in Oklahoma, North Dakota, Alabama, Mississippi — small arts organizations popping up like flowers coming up out of the cracks of sidewalks.

We support a tremendous number of [Los Angeles] arts organizations. We gave REDCAT $80,000 [recently]; we gave the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica a $90,000 grant. We gave the Hammer a $100,000 grant. We've given to the Latin American Museum in Long Beach, the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

What's your take on the L.A. art scene?

Los Angeles is second to none in making of art. Unfortunately, you don't have the broad-based public support for those creative activities. The struggles that places like MOCA have to keep their doors open are just shameful. MOCA is unquestionably one of the best if not the best contemporary art museum in the world, and yet the community barely gives it enough to keep its doors open. In New York, that institution would be supported with open arms. People would be fighting to get on the board. I've never understood why people in Los Angeles don't value what they have.

You fought for the arts when you were on the City Council.

People talk a good game in L.A. "Oh, the cultural capital, blah blah." It is, but not because of government support — it's almost nonexistent. And that's counterproductive because it's one of the great resources the city has. To give money to a stadium or a developer for a shopping center, that's easy, but to give money for the arts: "We just don't have it, times are really rough."

People have to understand how important and significant an asset the creative community is in Los Angeles and how it would harm the city if the creative community left. New York really gives support to its arts organizations. Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg understands the importance of the creative community to the economy, to the quality of life. The arts are one of the two or three most significant engines that keep New York vibrant and its economy going, and that should be the same in L.A.

How do you assess Andy Warhol's impact a quarter-century after his death?

The '60s were probably the most liberating in modern times. Andy Warhol was a critical part of that. His importance went beyond the actual art he made, to the way he lived his life. He recognized diversity, he fought for it, it was part of his lifestyle, everything he wrote. It's hard to find a better painter [of the era] than [Willem] de Kooning, but the impact Warhol had was broader and greater because his work comes from the culture and influenced the culture and is coming back to the culture.

You used to spend a third of your salary on art. Do you still?

Now it's half. I make more money, so I'm able to spend more.

You can't have enough room to hang it all?

When I closed my house in L.A. , I put about 300 works [in storage], and they're still there. I loan a lot of works, but I buy it all with the idea that I want it to end up in a museum. When I visit a museum and see things that I really appreciate, I recognize that they're there because somebody gave it to the museum or they gave the museum the money to buy it.

It's the rare personal collection that's museum-worthy [in total]. There are some — Norton Simon is the perfect example. But most people who put together quick collections nowadays and then build a big space for themselves and think they're museums are not museums.

I like to see work end up in museums because it's in dialogue with everything historically that has come before and everything that will come after. My main beneficiary has always been MOCA because I helped to start the museum and have been very fond of it. I hope it keeps on being strong so it can all go there. If that big red bus came by tomorrow and hit me, a museum would get absolutely every piece of art I own.

patt.morrison@latimes.com

Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes

This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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