How to build a better Los Angeles

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The civic engagement it took to complete Disney Hall is a lesson in what's required to move L.A. forward.

The civic engagement it took to complete Disney Hall is a lesson in what’s required to move L.A. forward.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall, which opened its doors 10 years ago this month, is rightly celebrated as the most recognizable jewel in Los Angeles’ cultural crown.

But we should remember that Disney Hall came very close to not being built at all.

Despite a singularly generous $50-million donation from Walt Disney’s widow, Lillian, in 1987, a brilliant design byFrank Gehry and an expenditure of nine years and $30 million, there was no Disney Hall by the early 1990s, and it looked like there never would be.

The city was attempting to recover from a devastating earthquake, the image-tarnishing O.J. Simpson trial and the shrinking of the local defense industry. In addition, Gehry’s design was under fire — Los Angeles was suffering what contemporary art critic Robert Hughes called “the shock of the new” — and the additional fundraising required to supplement the Disney donation had slowed to a trickle. The New York Times Magazine even ran a cover story about the hall under the headline “A Phantom Hall Filled with Discord.”

In 1996, county officials demanded that an additional $50 million be raised in the next year before construction could start. Without the money, the county was prepared to pull the plug. As longtime friends and devoted supporters of our adopted home city, it was clear to both of us that such an ambitious project needed mayoral backing and take-charge fundraising.

We vowed to raise double the money the county wanted, including $10 million from our own pockets. Andrea Van de Kamp, one of the city’s most gifted fundraisers, joined our team. Together, we devised a new campaign to appeal not just to fans of the Los Angeles Philharmonic but to everyone who loves Los Angeles. “The Heart of the City” campaign emphasized that Disney Hall could be more than a home for great music and a work of brilliant architecture; it would be the linchpin of a downtown revitalization that would extend from the sports and entertainment district in the south to a cultural corridor in the north. Disney Hall would join the monumental buildings of Grand Avenue — MOCA by Arata Isozaki and the under-construction cathedral by Rafael Moneo — and would be unmatched by any street in the world for its architectural virtuosity.

For many months, every breakfast, lunch, dinner and cocktail party we organized included a pitch to support Disney Hall. We guaranteed all donations would go entirely to construction of the hall, not to consultants or studies. The city’s corporate and philanthropic communities stepped up. We met the county’s fundraising target and went on to raise more than $200 million to complete the hall. There were hurdles along the way, but everyone stayed committed.

In the end, the city rallied together around a vitally important project. Without that upwelling of civic commitment, the concert hall would probably still be a hole in the ground and Grand Avenue would still sit largely fallow.

Today, another roadblock threatens the completion of the long-delayed Grand Avenue Project, and the story of Disney Hall offers an important lesson for city leaders. The region’s public institutions and private citizens are generous, and Los Angeles can match any city for ambitious civic projects that are vital to our economic, cultural and social identity. But citizens need leaders who sketch a vision of what is possible and rally them to the cause.

There were those who complained about Disney Hall’s final price tag. But most Angelenos today would agree that Disney Hall is priceless. It is to Los Angeles what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris and the Opera House is to Sydney. And Disney Hall isn’t just a great building. Gehry’s magnificent work catalyzed the development of Grand Avenue, including an architecturally distinct arts high school by Wolf Prix, the beautiful and well-programmed Grand Park and, by the end of next year, a new contemporary art museum, the Broad. Thanks in large part to Disney Hall, cultural tourism to Los Angeles has tripled. We have become one of the four cultural capitals of the world.

The lesson Disney Hall’s story teaches might be summed up in this formula: Private generosity plus political will equals civic success. It’s a lesson Los Angeles can’t afford to forget.

Philanthropist Eli Broad and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan co-chaired the Walt Disney oversight board, which raised much of the money to build Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Courtesy of Los Angeles Times

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