Oakland’s Arts Face Deep Cuts

The city's proposed 50-percent funding cuts could have far-reaching impacts on the burgeoning local arts scene.

Facing a $30 million budget shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year, the Oakland City Council will likely make some tough choices this week during its midcycle budget review process. One of the most severe is a proposed 50 percent reduction to the city’s Cultural Funding Program.

The Cultural Funding Program provides about $1 million in grants annually to arts organizations and artists, funding operations, individual art projects, and arts education in the schools. Some of the city’s biggest arts and cultural institutions receive grants through the program, which is funded by the general fund.

And if the proposed cuts are approved, it will undoubtedly put a strain on an already-strained arts community. “I don’t know what they’re thinking,” said Margo Dunlap, chair and co-founder of the Oakland Cultural Trust, an association of Oakland art organizations and artists, and executive director of Pro Arts, which receives funding through the program. “This is a time for trimming the budget, not for eliminating infrastructure. A 50-percent cut is one stroke from eliminating the entire program.”

Dunlap says that while she understands reductions are necessary in light of Oakland’s severe budget issues, the cuts are the biggest proposed reduction to any one program in the city’s budget, and are disproportionate to those proposed for other departments. She cites cutbacks to the city council as example. “They’ve taken 10 percent salary cuts last year,” she said. “That set the standard for what should be determined as proportional cuts.” Anything more severe may force some organizations to close their doors, she added.

Among the 2009-10 recipients were Creative Growth Art Center, EastSide Arts Alliance, the Crucible, Museum of Children’s Art, Oakland East Bay Symphony, Oakland Youth Chorus, Savage Jazz Dance Company, Destiny Arts Center, Oakland Youth Orchestra, Stagebridge, Woman’s Will, and the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. Other recipients include Oakland Asian Cultural Center, Youth Radio, Rock Paper Scissors Collective, Oaktown Jazz Workshops, and Youth UpRising, plus some 22 individual artists.

This isn’t the first time the community has faced such cuts. In October 2008, the council proposed eliminating city arts funding altogether. But supporters came out in force and prevailed. Dunlap is hoping that a similar mobilization effort will show up to a special budget session of the city council on Thursday, April 1, at 7 p.m., when the matter will be discussed. Also on the chopping block is funding to Vietnamese Senior Services, Chabot Space & Science Center, Cypress-Mandela Training Center, Symphony in the Schools Program, and the Women’s Business Initiative, among others.

The arts funds are seen as especially necessary at a time when many arts organizations are already dealing with shriveled budgets. Pro Arts’ city funding has been reduced by 30 percent compared to four years ago, said Dunlap — the result of increased competition for funds. That meant they received $21,000 this year as opposed to $35,000 in years past, equaling about 10 percent of the organization’s overall budget. Contrary to what some critics may contend, Dunlap says competition for the funds is fierce, the funding transparent, and the requirements very strict. Though it varies depending on the organization and artist, funding is limited to only a portion of one’s overall budget.

While the competition for funds is stiff, even organizations that are approved for funding don’t always receive it, according to Jan Schlesinger, marketing director for the Crucible, a nonprofit arts foundry based in West Oakland. “Whether you win the funding and get the check are two different things,” she said. “They are still somewhat behind on actually making good on the funding promises that they were able to make. So I can understand why this is coming up again with the city.”

But the city may be cutting off its own revenue stream if they cut the arts program as severely as they’re considering. Dunlap notes that studies have shown that nonprofit arts in Oakland generate more than $103 million in gross economic opportunity annually and support more than 5,000 jobs. For investing $1 million in the arts now, the city will get back $4 million. “There are arguments that when you cut the program in half, that means that that economic activity could be cut in half,” she said.

Oakland East Bay Symphony Executive Director Jennifer Duston echoed that sentiment. While Duston said the funding is “very meaningful to us and what we do,” she also noted that arts programs have a rippling effect. “The arts have played a significant role in the revitalization of Oakland,” she said. “On a Friday night we have 3,000 people coming to the Paramount — the downtown is very active. There are lots of jobs that come about because of that.”

But the arts are also a vital part of a city’s identity — particularly Oakland’s. The monthly Art Murmur has fostered a community of artists and galleries, and drawn folks from outside the city, while the multimillion-dollar revitalization effort in Uptown has branded it as an arts and entertainment district. The city just spent $1.2 million of non-general-fund money renovating a 19th Street BART station entrance on 17th Street as a gateway to the Uptown, including $500,000 for an art piece. But if the city’s arts cuts go according to plan, there may not be much of an arts district to enter.


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