A Call for Support: Funding the California Arts Council

Michael Zwiebach on April 5, 2013

As California climbs unsteadily back onto its feet after being decked by the financial crisis of 2008, we can hope, at last, that funding for the California Arts Council may be returned to non-crisis levels. A bill introduced into the state legislature this coming Tuesday (AB 580) would increase the direct appropriation to the CAC from $1 million (approximately 3 cents per capita) to $75 million (two dollars per capita). It’s an idea whose time has returned: The editors and staff of SFCV wholeheartedly support its passage. (SFCV, to be clear, is not eligible for existing CAC program funding, nor has it ever received CAC funding.)

Back in 2003, during California’s first fiscal crisis, Governor Gray Davis and the legislature cut the budget allotment for the California Arts Council by some 94 percent. In subsequent years, budget-tightening plunged the CAC allocation even further, and it has averaged $1 million for a number of years. Together with arts license plates sales and programs administered for the National Endowment for the Arts, the CAC has managed to scrape a budget together that allows it to continue to exist; to run its core projects, like the California Cultural Data Project, Artists in the Schools, and Arts and Accessibility; and to maintain its website, which lists job and grant opportunities, contains a research library of studies on the impact of the arts, among other things. But much more could be done; much more is needed.

There are, of course, many reasons to support our arts organizations directly, some of which I’ve written about before. But the reason to support the state arts council funding is a democratic one: The CAC programs help arts organizations reach underserved communities, and increase accessibility to the arts.

It is a constant sore spot for artists, administrators, and fans alike that the arts, and participation in the arts, are seen as elitist activities paid for out-of-pocket by rich and upwardly mobile people. They’re not: Arts organizations bend over backwards to create free or inexpensive opportunities to see their work, as SFCV regularly reports. Arts groups all over the state create hundreds of education programs each year that reach thousands of students and adults. This work creates stronger, more viable communities and benefits all of us. And for this social good, the state of California pays almost nothing.

And that’s wrong. Worse, lack of government funding means that the CAC is almost powerless to affect the geographic distribution of these programs. Arts programs that are initiated by a civic arts organization have a limited reach, while less densely populated and lower-income areas of the state may not, on their own, be able to support the arts organizations they need. With the money from AB 580, the CAC would be able to revive its own grants and programs, which directly address these needs.  The Stockton Symphony, subject of an eye-opening SFCV report, grows more robust. The East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, a mission-driven, pioneer-plant of an organization, in the heart of Richmond, featured in our Kids Around the Bay column, becomes sustainable and expands its programming.

There are, of course, many worthy, long-starved causes that are also deserving of renewed public funding — schools, the state university system, public safety, for example. But we should remember that the appropriation being contemplated in AB 580 isn’t exorbitant or huge when considered against the total state budget. Moreover, a number of studies suggest that the leverage for a single dollar of public money spent on the arts can be quite high: In its spring 2013 fact sheet, the NEA reports that $1 in NEA funds leverages another $9 in other public and private investment. That ratio would be smaller for a state arts council, but still significant.

The current favorite argument, that the arts create jobs, is also strong, despite being often repeated. As of the end of 2009, the NEA reported 363,430 artists working in California (2 percent of the population), and the number of people employed by California arts organizations, according to California Advocates for the Arts is over 500,000, 7.6 percent of the workforce, adding $9 billion a year to the state’s economy, much of it in direct spending.

If you want a quick correlation for how public money might spur the arts sector, consider San Francisco, with its modest Hotel Tax Fund: According to a study by Americans for the Arts, San Francisco city and county supports a non-profit arts sector that drops a whopping $750 million (total organization and audience spending) into the economy each year, resulting in almost 20,000 jobs and 24 million dollars in local revenue (and another 35 million for the state).

Like investment in strong education, investment in the arts is money we get back in the form of a stronger, more dynamic and creative economy. That makes sense, but the real argument for supporting the California Arts Council and AB 580 comes from realizing that we all deserve to share in the benefits deriving from participation in the arts. At two dollars a head, a $75 million appropriation to the CAC is a relatively painless way to expand arts outreach and education programs and help sustain the organizations that provide these valuable services.


UPDATE from Kris Sinclair, executive director, Association of California Symphony Orchestras:

The arts in California has made it over the first hurdle as it attempts to re-fund the California Arts Council at $75 million. Sponsored by Assembly Member Adrin Nazarian, AB 580 Arts Council: Grants made it out of the Assembly Committee for Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism, and Internet Media today with a majority vote. Chair Ian Calderon (D-57th District) added to our cause by enthusiastically talking about kids' arts program in his district. The Californians for the Arts, California Arts Advocates, CalNonprofits, La Raza Galería Posada, the Association of California Symphony Orchestras, and others were present to present testimony or give supporting comments. The bill will travel next to Appropriations. A robust effort from the field will be needed as the bill moves along.

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