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From Tel Aviv: Lessons for L.A.

One of the lingering memories of my recent trip to Israel is of walls; famous ones, like the Wailing Wall, and miles upon miles of inescapable eyesores that make up the Separation Wall. What I didn't expect was to pay any attention to the mundane walls along the freeways. Instead of the monotonous barriers that traditionally protect houses and people living in close proximity to freeways, Israelis excel in making these boring structures into surprisingly attractive components of the city fabric. Here, the brick wall is occasionally intercepted by life-size silhouettes of cute houses cut from milky glass; there, an artist's hand has shaped the bricks into a smart and elegant geometric design. I don't recall any other city having so much good public art as Tel Aviv has -- where you see it placed matter-of-factly along the streets and walkways, and not just on the plazas in front of imposing buildings. When I asked the mayor of Tel Aviv about his city's commitment to art, he confirmed that an unusually high portion of the city budget -- five percent -- goes to support art and culture.

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I went to see an amazing and obviously very expensive production of The Magic Flute at the Tel Aviv Opera House, staged and designed by William Kentridge, the internationally acclaimed South African artist. You may remember he had a memorable solo show of his figurative drawings and animated shorts here at LACMA a few years ago.

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Another thing I learned about Tel Aviv is that it's carefully restoring its architectural treasure -- hundreds upon hundreds of elegant Bauhaus-style buildings. It's known as 'White City,' and was built by --migr-- architects who fled Germany in the 1930s, after the Nazis closed the famous Bauhaus school.

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The 'White City' and Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, are the only two 20th century cities that UNESCO put on its World Heritage list of protected sites. For any student of architecture, the 'White City' alone is worth a trip to Israel.

You should see this mayor, a macho former Israeli army pilot, expounding enthusiastically on the value of art and culture, not only for the soul of his city, but --thanks to the tourists flocking to Tel Aviv -- also for the city coffers.

LA City Hall

I wish he would have a chitchat with the Los Angeles city fathers who only allocate a tiny fraction of one percent of our city budget for art and culture. Talk about a lack of logic, considering the fact that cultural tourism is one of the biggest industries in L.A.; though I keep hearing interesting rumors that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has decorated his offices with works by contemporary Chicano artists. Good for him. Good for us; a Los Angeles mayor with an interest in art; now, that's promising. I remember being at City Hall about 10 years ago to visit the offices of the Mayor and his assistant, and boy, what mind-numbingly dull art did they have.

Maybe I can sneak in so I can report on the art our new Mayor chose for his offices. If the artworks are as good as rumor has it, I'll summon all my chutzpah to ask permission to bring the students from my class, "The Fine Art of Art-Collecting", so we can discuss his choices. As I like to remind my students, if you want to die 90 years-young instead of 90 years-old, you must keep your mind and soul energized through engagement with contemporary art. I wonder if the Mayor agrees with me on that. It's in his power to offer more support to art in our city, which would also help keep our city coffers full.

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