Los Angeles Times Magazine

Sunday, April 21, 1999

15 More Minutes: Checking In on Joel Wachs

The longtime L.A. city councilman is ebullient about his job in New York as president of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. He doesn't miss politics, but he does yearn for L.A.

By Eric Pape

Joel Wachs looks peppy for a man of 63 as he stands on 7th Avenue across the street from the Manhattan hotel he called home for six months. Sliding into a restaurant booth for breakfast, he's beaming. It's not exactly what you might expect of someone who moved to New York last year in defeat, walking away from three decades of public service in Los Angeles after losing his third race for mayor.

"For 30 years of my life, I had to ask for money, which is the most horrible side of politics, and now I give it away," he says.

The money he's doling out is from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which supports artists. Wachs is president and CEO of the foundation. "We don't have to deal with politicians or anyone." After toiling on L.A.'s City Council for so long, Wachs understands the meaning of such freedom better than most. Perhaps that is why, even in this glum, aging cafe with its faded interior and sinking booths, he is funnier, freer and more engaged than I ever expected. Could this effervescent guy possibly be the same man so humbled a year ago?

The answer comes as I watch him meticulously cut his French toast into small pieces before taking the first bite. Yeah, it's the same Joel Wachs.

So, how's things?

"I am pinching myself, asking myself, 'Can this be real?'"

It is no small feat to escape decades on the City Council with your faculties intact, but Wachs' view isn't focused on the past. "That chapter is just closed. I am proud of my legacy, but I don't look back." With finality, he adds, "I have no desire to ever run for office again."

OK, but why New York?

"I came here to get another 15 minutes," he says with a smirk.

Before meeting Wachs, I had a hard time envisioning him amid the high-rises of midtown. We're talking about the perennial representative of Council District 2, the rising young Republican from the San Fernando Valley back when I was learning to walk. Orange groves still thrived in the Valley at the time of Wachs' first election. He seemed more secure in his job than a college professor. It wasn't hard to imagine him being carried out on a stretcher.

After crushing opponents election after election--eight in all--he set his gaze on the mayor's office. He ran in 1973. He lost. He tried again in 1993, while serving as council president. He lost again, this time to political novice Richard Riordan. Wachs reached for the grail one last time in 2001, running not as the populist Riordan had defeated. This time he finished a disappointing fourth, with 11% of the vote.

"There were six major candidates and only one was going to win," he says. "I'm a big boy. I can handle it."

One would have thought he'd begin to wind down. Not so. "A lot of people start setting their eyes toward retirement as opposed to a new career. I didn't really think about that. I just thought, 'What am I gonna do next?' " He was a well-known supporter of the arts, both as a council member and in private life, regularly spending one-quarter of his salary on art. As a member of the Andy Warhol Foundation board of directors, he also knew that its director had retired--but he had given the vacancy no thought. After all, the job was in New York, not L.A.

Then, unexpectedly, another board member asked Wachs whether he would take the job. "As disappointing as it was to lose the race, that this came along 48 hours later was amazing. It was like winning a lottery: Do what you love, in the legacy of Andy Warhol, and be well paid--it's a dream job!"

Wachs' interest in Warhol dates to the 1960s, when he discovered the artist as a trailblazer for personal liberation. Still, Wachs had doubts.

"When you visit New York, you say, 'This is great for, like, four days. But would I live here?' That is what I thought." Nonetheless, he signed a four-year contract, and then was surprised by the response in L.A.

"A number of people who I didn't even know wrote. They were in their 60s and they said, 'It is great to know that it is still possible.' I gather that it is hard to apply for jobs at 62."

He didn't expect that his new life choice might inspire his peers. "I just want to live every day of my life in a rewarding and exciting way," he says.

As he rambles on excitedly in Manhattan-speed sentences, it is clear that he is succeeding. Day to day, he administers a $150-million foundation with 22 employees, as well as the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. The foundation last year gave out between $5 million and $6 million in grants to arts organizations, some of which are having a harder time obtaining funding under a socially conservative National Endowment for the Arts. (Friends of Wachs have long suggested that he might one day head the NEA.)

In his new post, Wachs hopes to give controversial artists financial shelter from politicians who seize on issues such as sex or race in art for political gain. He especially enjoys working with bright young artists around the country. "Many people, when they get older, think that the world has gone to hell in a hand-basket. But I am really inspired by the young."

The foundation, created out of Warhol's one-sentence will, which said, "It all goes to the visual arts," is the largest supporter of cutting-edge art in the United States, Wachs says. "If I could do one thing, it would be to broaden the appreciation for the arts in this country so that people would realize how important the arts are and how we are blessed in Los Angeles and New York by our wealth of artists. We must support them." While Wachs says that little could surprise him in New York now, that wasn't necessarily the case when he arrived in late summer for his first scouting visit. He was shaving in his hotel room on the cloudless morning of Sept. 11.

He made it back to L.A. after three days of canceled flights. "I was so glad when I got home," he recalls. But he adds that being in New York helped him bond with the city. "I am glad that I was here for it. And I was glad upon my return that people in Los Angeles took it very seriously."

Two weeks later, on Sept. 28, Wachs formally relinquished his City Council seat, two years early. The next day, he flew back to New York, a city in the midst of anthrax scares, nasty flashbacks and repeated evacuations of buildings.

"It was a scary flight back. I was giving up a council seat, changing cities, changing lives. It was a strange beginning."

Decades earlier he had sacrificed a lucrative tax law career for public life. Now he was walking away from his platform of advocacy for neighborhood councils, for the rights of people infected with AIDS and HIV, for the rights of the elderly and from his battle against government waste.

Now, he says, his only political activities will involve the arts. He didn't vote in New York city's mayoral race last fall, and he hasn't even registered to vote here.

"To me, it's like I want to keep living, and this is a wonderful way to do it. It is a way to make the later years every bit as fun and rewarding as the earlier years. If the first months are any indication, this is it. I have the same enthusiasm and energy I did during my first months on the City Council. It is much better than sitting on your laurels."

He spoke of another L.A. figure who had started a new career late in life: "Dick Riordan, who was around 63 when he became mayor. He went the other way, from private life into politics. I recommend it to people. I really do."

As for Los Angeles, he has promised his mother that he will visit each month. "I think L.A. has just begun to reach its potential. It is a city of the future. It is blessed with a great physical environment. I love L.A. If I were back there tomorrow, I'd be a happy camper."

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