Aaron Paley and Katie Bergin have been catalyzing community in Los Angeles together for nearly three decades. They first got to know each other at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in the early '80s, where they produced the groundbreaking International Festival of Masks. "It opened up a whole world to me and laid the foundation for my life's work," Bergin recalls. "Until then, LA had been a series of somewhat isolated neighborhoods. Working with the musicians, artists, dancers and poets of Los Angeles, I felt those boundaries drop."
In 1988, Bergin and Paley struck out on their own, founding Community Arts Resources (CARS), dedicated to creating community throughout a city whose diverse neighborhoods and micro-enclaves were ripe for interconnection.
CARS' first home in Santa Monica's 18th Street Arts Center put them in touch with other newly-emerging groups like Highways, the Electronic Cafe, and Cornerstone Theater Company. (Last month, Cornerstone honored Bergin, Paley and CARS at their 10th Annual Bridge Awards.)
A few years later, the pair began producing the Santa Monica Festival for that city's Cultural Affairs Department, and has been doing so ever since -- this year's will be on May 8. The event creates a multi-purpose, town-square feeling with a variety of events, cultural outposts and musical performances ranging from professionals to ensembles of fifth-graders.
Community Arts Resources' mission emphasizes the development of public space in Los Angeles, a concept that may seem oxymoronic to Angelenos who have panic attacks when they have to walk more than a few feet to their valet-parked cars. Bergin/Paley helped with the design for the new Grand Avenue Civic Park, slated for 2012 opening, which will feature a fountain plaza, performance lawn, community terrace and event space, along with a children's garden and an area for community markets.
CARS has also focused on other parts of downtown, including Olvera Street (Plaza de Cultural y Arte), Little Tokyo (Japanese American Cultural & Community Center's Facilities Study and Strategic Plan), South Park (Nokia Plaza) and now Chinatown (Summer Nights Festival). And they've cultivated ongoing alliances with such major institutions as The Getty Center and Villa, the Japanese American National Museum and the Skirball Cultural Center.
Paley, Bergin and a small support staff have worked closely with the Getty for more than 15 years, bringing various communities together around targeted exhibits to connect Oaxacans, Germans, French, Iranians and other groups.
Free admission (reservations a must), free parking passes and other conveniences lower barriers that might otherwise stand between lower-income Angelenos and the mighty Getty on the hill. Next month, the Villa Family Festival will highlight The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire, celebrating the bicentennial of Mexican independence.
Community Arts Resources likes to test the limits of cross-cultural collaborations. They brought Scottish Bagpipers and Taiko Drummers together in Santa Monica, and Israeli hip-hop and salsa at Fiesta Shalom 2009, which underscored and deepened Boyle Heights's role in connecting Latinos and Jews. "To us," says Paley, "it's as natural as the fusion food of LA -- the pastrami burrito, the Korean taco truck, or Langers in the middle of little Central America."
Sometimes, CARS takes an LA community on the road, as when they recently produced LA's participation in Guadalajara, Mexico for that city's International Book Fair.
Bergin and Paley are currently engaged with other community-builders to make a reality of CicLAvia, which will consist of the temporary, recurring opening of L.A. streets to pedestrians and bicyclists -- but no cars. The CicLAvia organization is planning a program for September, in which about 7.5 miles of city streets will be temporarily opened to families, pedestrians, cyclists, joggers, skateboarders and others.
Community Arts Resources is a for-profit concern, but in practice it's about as close as you can get to a non-profit. "We keep none of our revenues beyond paying for modest salaries and expenses," Paley says. "In effect, we operate as a non-profit but without some of the hindrances. Our mission is in community, for community and about community."