California Arts Funding: RIP

State leaders cut the Arts Council's appropriation to $1 million, down from $35 million two years earlier.

I n late July, lost amid all the hullabaloo over whether a certain actor would announce his plan to clean and jerk the governorship, California’s senate approved a hotly contested measure to stanch the state’s $38 billion deficit. Six days later, Governor Davis signed the bill into law. In the process, Davis and the legislature coldcocked the California Arts Council, the state agency responsible for making grants to artists and arts organizations throughout the state. The new budget reduced the council’s General Fund appropriation to $1 million, down from $18 million last year and $35 million the year before that. The Arts Council managed to escape outright extermination, but it won’t be able to make any grants and is scrambling to figure out how to support California arts organizations without any money.

While every one of California’s 53 counties will be affected by the new budget, Alameda County — which came in third after Los Angeles and San Francisco counties for Arts Council grants in 2002-2003 — stands to take a dramatic and long-lasting hit. As a way of looking at what this will mean to the East Bay, consider that the Arts Council granted $1.5 million to Alameda County artists and arts organizations alone in 2002-2003. That’s half again as much as the Arts Council’s entire General Fund budget for 2003-2004. Contra Costa County received another $426,457 in funds.

California’s per capita arts spending is now lower than that of any other state in the country. “California has the bleakest financial picture,” says Laurie Schell, executive director of California Arts Advocates. “My colleagues at other alliances in other states have fought the good fight to maintain their funding — I don’t believe anyone else has been cut as severely.” The numbers bear Schell out. Last year’s budget allowed for a per capita allotment of about 37 cents — the cost of a single postage stamp. But now it’s even worse at three cents a head — the cost of a supplemental stamp. The national average is a comparatively luxurious buck.

Nobody denies that the new budget is an ungainly solution to an ugly problem; the legislature held its nose to let this one through. It wounds almost everyone. The Technology, Trade, and Commerce Agency disappears entirely in January 2004, and the duties of the state Film Commission and Tourism Program will be turned over to the Department of Business, Transport, and Housing. Library funding will be cut by 50 percent. Medi-Cal will see a 5 percent reduction. Sixteen thousand state jobs will be lost.

But few divisions have been hit as hard as the Arts Council, whose support nourishes countless California arts organizations. And as it lies gasping for air, artists and arts administrators across the state are wondering how they’re going to continue bringing their programming to the public. Meanwhile, many museums, galleries, and theater companies are reducing hours, cutting staff, and slashing performance schedules.

For 27 years, the Arts Council has provided matching grants for artists and organizations in the fields of visual, performing, literary, musical, and new-media arts. Grants fall into one of eleven categories, from artist fellowships and residence programs to multicultural advancement and traditional folk arts. The council provides money for operating expenses, touring companies, and arts education programs.

The list of Alameda County grantees is three single-spaced pages long, and includes everyone from the Alameda County Art Commission and Ashkenaz to West African drum teacher Dr. Zakarya Sao Diouf. Also on the list are dance companies, gospel choirs, small presses, orchestras, museums, theater companies, and several community organizations. The grants range from a few thousand dollars to more than $110,000; some grantees received only one grant in 2002, some several. Some of the organizations have been around for decades, and some are just beginning to walk.

The California Indian Storytelling Association, currently run out of executive director Lauren Teixeira’s Fremont home, falls into the latter category. The association is sponsoring festivals that bring together Native American storytellers to honor their elders and traditions. “For native people, stories have always been a part of everyday life,” Teixeira says. “You tell stories at the kitchen table, as part of rituals or gatherings. You didn’t have events that were specifically for telling stories. We’re doing something new. In modern times, people are not necessarily with their elders the way they used to be, or their elders are not with them, so we have to re-create that experience through our festivals.” The association has held eight festivals so far, mostly in the Bay Area. It also offers workshops where participants can do research, learning about their background and what stories may be available to them.

The Arts Council funded the first storytelling festivals in 1998, and provided funds through a grant program to establish the organization. That allowed Teixeira to set up a statewide board and bylaws and establish nonprofit status. Arts Council funds paid for the association’s Web site, newsletter, and office supplies. “It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough to get us started,” she says. “I don’t know how we would have done it without it. We’ve been able to travel, attend conferences, publicize, and make it possible for people in the Native community to join us. Now we will have to find money elsewhere.”

Even as the organization loses its state funding, it happily is receiving its biggest grant ever from the National Endowment for the Arts. But the federal grant probably wouldn’t have been possible without the initial state support. “With us out of the picture, you have more groups fighting for a smaller pool of dollars and without the imprimatur of the Arts Council,” says council spokesman Adam Gottlieb. “‘Past grantee of the California Arts Council’ is sort of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”

People concerned about the budget cuts worry about what will happen to organizations that are just starting out. “Funders are going to be less likely to risk money on new programs or projects because there’s less money to go out and more people who need it,” Teixeira says. “They’ll fund proven projects and programs. It’s a good thing we’ve already started, because if we started today we probably wouldn’t get the funding.”

The Center for Art in Public Life, run by the California College of the Arts (until recently the California College of Arts and Crafts), helps students reach out to the community, offers grants and fellowships, showcases faculty work, and works to incorporate arts and “social-justice programming” into K-12 curricula. The center, which is entering its fourth academic year, received three council grants last year for a total of $104,128.

Many of the largest grants from 2002-2003 were made to organizations working on multiyear demonstration projects designed to identify successful ways of making the arts basic to schools. Many of those who received grants last year were almost done with their research when news of the budget cuts hit; like the center, they now face the prospect of finding other funds to finish work started with Arts Council money. Stagebridge, Opera Piccola, MOCHA, and Community Works are the other Alameda County organizations left holding an empty demonstration projects bag.

The demonstration projects illuminate what a shock this budget is to the system of most institutions. “When the state makes a commitment to you for three years, you’re pretty much planning three years out,” says Sonia Manjon, director of the Center for Art in Public Life. “So we were expecting to get something from the state. We didn’t think that it would be completely cut off. Even if the budget hearing didn’t go in our favor, we didn’t think it would be a total wash. … We’ve had to cut back a lot, be creative about how we’re using the resources we have.”

Oakland-based Stagebridge, founded in 1978 by Dr. Stu Kandell to unite the generations through storytelling and stagecraft, is a much older and more established organization. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less susceptible to the loss of funding. Stagebridge also illustrates the measures organizations have to take just to stay afloat. Lucy Finch, who is simultaneously serving as office manager, touring director, and outreach and grant development officer, says the budget cuts have reduced her funding by 60 percent. Things are so tough that Kandell had to close the office for the entire month of July because he couldn’t meet payroll. State budget wrangling that delayed planned April payments until August only worsened matters.

Finch worries about what will happen if Stagebridge can no longer afford to operate. “We were about to celebrate our 25th year serving adults and children — it puts all of it at risk,” she says. “We have eighty volunteers trained as storytellers that go into schools. For a lot of these volunteers, it’s their lifeblood. They’re seniors and they live for it.”

Many of those most concerned by the new budget are quick to point out that the near-dismantling of the Arts Council has more than economic consequences. Some staff have been with the organization for decades. “The Arts Council have been absolutely the first believers in what we wanted to do,” Teixeira says. “It’s heartbreaking to see them go down. Yes, it’s the money, but it’s also the people.” Stagebridge’s Kandell concurs that the Arts Council are “people who really, really know the arts community.” The council’s Gottlieb bemoans “the loss of institutional memory” as twelve out of 35 positions are eliminated.

Belinda Taylor’s position as director of the council’s Arts Marketing Institute is one of the few staff positions that remains, supported as it is by a Wallace Foundation grant. Taylor challenges the widely held misconception that the Arts Council grants only benefit adults, noting that two-thirds of its grantmaking goes to kids. “It’s not like we’re out there throwing money at the opera and symphony — the money [the council] gives to the opera and symphony, it goes to kids’ programming,” she says. “How can people turn away from kids like that?”

As local artists and arts administrators sift through the rubble, the resounding cry is “Why did this happen?” Many believe, despite the deep cuts other agencies endured, that the Arts Council was singled out for neglect. As Senator Jack Scott, a Pasadena Democrat, wrote in an op-ed piece in the August 25 Glendale News Press, “We could have found some of that $17 million we cut in the arts somewhere else. We didn’t. There was no political will to do that. In addition to myself, there were only a handful of legislators in either party, in either house, who were keenly interested in what would happen to the arts. Please pay special attention to that — this year, there was virtually no constituency for the arts in the legislature. I don’t know how that happened. But it is something each and every one of us has to help reverse.”

No one is shocked to hear that the Republicans actively tried to shut down the Arts Council. But some register surprise that the Democrats didn’t do more to protect it. According to Scott’s press secretary David Link, “For the most part the Democrats were so focused on health care and education and what they could save there, that pretty much eclipsed the arts. The Republican caucus was pretty consistently anti-[Arts Council], but that’s policy for them.”

Others are wondering where the outrage is. “People are, like, ‘It’s business as usual,'” says Stagebridge’s Kandell. “When you try to explain to them what’s happened, they’re like, ‘Oh, really?’ First of all people don’t know what’s happened to the [Arts Council], and I guess that people are doing well outside of the arts. It baffles me what world other people are living in.”

In the cutbacks’ aftermath, what can people do to support the arts in California and the East Bay? Schell sees some hope in individual action. “Our message is get involved at whatever level you can. There are so many folks in the East Bay area that are working — go find out what’s going on; roll up your sleeves and offer to help.” Kandell says Stagebridge hopes to take up the slack from having to lay people off by using volunteer labor. There isn’t an arts organization on the face of the planet that couldn’t use another few volunteers.

Schell, Taylor, and other Arts Council supporters say that voters need to keep up the pressure on their elected officials. East Bay Senators Perata, Figueroa, and Torlakson all voted for the budget bill, and critics of the cutbacks say that constituents need to remind such officials that the arts need state funding to thrive. Gottlieb says his biggest fear is that “this issue will go away and people will forget about it until next year when the budget comes around again.” Interested individuals can keep track of what’s going on with the Arts Council at its Web site, which is updated frequently.

There’s another unusual step that individuals — or at least motorists — can take to support the arts in California. Money from California’s General Fund is one of three legs of the Arts Council footstool, Gottlieb notes. The other two are grants from foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts, and proceeds from sales of California’s arts license plate. Designed by pop artist Wayne Thiebaud, it’s the state’s number one specialty plate, with more than 105,000 sold so far, Gottlieb says. The plate itself costs $30, twenty bucks less than the ever-popular whale tail plate, and $15 a year to renew. Gottlieb notes that it’s “the cheapest Wayne Thiebaud you can get,” and says that some of California’s 21 million registered drivers are buying the plates as a political statement.

“If nothing else, Republicans could love that too,” notes Link, the Democratic senator’s press secretary. “It has nothing to do with the government, individuals are making the choice that they want to support the arts privately and publicly.”n

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