LA cultural affairs head honcho Danielle Brazell on what the job entails, how her LAUSD experience shaped her life and how discovering a passion for art saved it
Over the past 20 years, Danielle Brazell has earned a reputation as a passionate supporter and dogged fundraiser of the arts. One could view it as a no-brainer when, nearly a year ago, Mayor Eric Garcetti nominated her to be general manager of the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA).
Danielle has oversight of a $56 million portfolio of facilities, programming and initiatives providing arts and cultural services in Los Angeles. The Reseda native attended Grover Cleveland High School but lacked the credits to graduate, making her a rare LA city department head without a high school diploma.
Here are some excerpts from her one-on-one with Ventura Blvd editor-in-chief Linda Grasso.
I understand that a seminal experience was meeting your high school drama teacher.
Yes, my Cleveland drama teacher, Barbara Yanuck, took one look at me, introduced herself and shook my hand. In that second, she demonstrated trust and respect—traits I instinctively wanted to return. Barbara created the opportunity to imagine my life, a critical tool for charting one’s future.
So you didn’t get your diploma. That surprises me. You seem so driven.
My mother used to say that my emotional scale was like that of a piano—“an infinite number of notes, melodies and rhythms.” I didn’t have a vehicle to express those feelings. Language eluded me, so I left high school functionally illiterate. My journals from that time affirm this deep struggle. I floundered.
Any cultural experiences you remember while growing up here?
My parents didn’t have the resources or the awareness to take me to cultural events. But I had the opportunity to see a little play called Bugs in 1976. It was the first time I stepped into any theatre, much less the grand Ahmanson Theatre.
I had never experienced anything so fancy. I was completely captivated. The play was a comedy about bugs in New York City.
The cockroach was my favorite character because I too had many living in the apartment I shared with my mother, sister and brother. I learned that they are just trying to survive like every other bug on the street. It was the first time that a spark ignited inside of me.
Share more on your background.
My most recent past position as executive director for arts for LA made me the seasoned arts advocate I always wanted to become. I transitioned that organization from an ad hoc steering committee comprised of local executive arts leadership to a highly visible arts advocacy organization serving the greater LA region.
Valley DCA projects?
We operate and manage the Canoga Park Youth Arts Center and the Madrid Theatre; partner with Sony on the Sony Pictures Media Arts Program that will soon take up residence at Pacoima City Hall; fund many organizations like Deaf West Theatre providing services to the community; and support important projects like the Lit Crawl LA: NoHo.
I understand you are a big supporter of graffiti artists.
Murals are a signature art form and a great way of making arts and culture visible and accessible. They also help define a community by reflecting the uniqueness of the place and people. The City Council has appropriated funds for mural restoration and the creation of new murals, so we are currently working with all the council districts to determine the best way to creatively and effectively deploy those funds for the greatest impact.
Why is art important?
Art saves lives. It fosters empathy and respect for those different from you. Art is pedagogy; it teaches, informs and inspires learning. Public support for the arts helps to connect people that otherwise would not have access to these vital tools.
Simply having access to the tools is what can make the difference in someone’s life. It made a major difference in mine. That is why I do what I do.
Walk With Me
A new app brings together the past and present of the Valley.
The Walk With Me app blends interviews, music, historic sound clips, natural sounds and “live noise” into an interactive walking art installation that reveals itself differently for each user. Stroll the Boulevard, and your phone’s GPS accesses data points that allow you to hear an evolving soundscape.
The app is the result of a partnership between the LA Department of Cultural Affairs and app developers Dutch Culture and CicLAvia. Go to the Apple store for the free download.