California State Capitol
The California State Capitol in Sacramento | Credit: Andre M

You need only the fingers on one hand to count the performing arts organizations in the U.S. that are not experiencing or complaining about “fiscal constraints.”

In the Bay Area, just see recent news about the San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and so on. While the Los Angeles Philharmonic may be among those “fortunate five” you could count on one hand, other vital organizations in L.A., such as the late American Youth Symphony, have faced terminal challenges.

Besides the pandemic, there are many reasons for this quagmire. But at a time when the economy is doing well, with the stock market at a record high and unemployment at a historic low, why isn’t the situation for the performing arts better?

The subject in its entirety is too large to tackle here, so we’ll focus on a limited — but still sprawling — issue: the role of government.

The historically lamentable lack of government support for the arts in the U.S. is taking another turn for the worse. California and San Francisco are facing large deficits, and meager support for the arts here is certain to decline further.

Gavin Newsom
California Governor Gavin Newsom | Courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

There is a relatively “not too bad” piece of news from the state, but the city of San Francisco’s support for the arts (see below) may take a hit, even with hotel and tax revenues (which fund that support) improving.

The recent news from Sacramento: The California Senate and Assembly have voted to reverse 75 percent of cuts proposed by Governor Gavin Newsom. The Performing Arts Equitable Payroll Fund will be restored to its full $12.5 million, and arts grant funding to the California Arts Council, which will be reduced by $5 million (instead of the proposed $10 million) in 2024–2025 and 2025–2026, will be restored to full beginning in 2026–2027.

Before the recent back-and-forth about those cuts — the reversal of which may change nothing in the end — a San Francisco Chronicle report explained: “Among the sectors disproportionately affected is the arts, with [Newsom’s] revised budget proposal introduced last week showing a 38 [percent] decrease in funding to the California Arts Council, the main way the state supports the arts. He would also gut the $12.5 million previously promised to the Equitable Payroll Fund, which was created to help small arts companies comply with [the] so-called gig-work bill AB5, and send all those monies back to the general fund.”

Federal support? The National Endowment for the Arts’ $200 million (still being negotiated) constitutes about 0.00003 percent of the federal budget. To put that in perspective, Germany (with a population one-fourth of the U.S.’s 330 million) spends over $15 billion in direct support for the arts — and that’s only the federal government, with states and cities all contributing large amounts as well.

As composer and commentator William Osborne has pointed out, Germany’s public arts funding allows the country to have 23 times more full-time symphony orchestras per capita than the United States and approximately 28 times more full-time opera houses.

Even more importantly, Osborne has written that “in Europe, publicly funded cultural institutions are used to educate young people and this helps to maintain a high level of interest in the arts. In America, arts education faces constant cutbacks, which helps reduce interest.”

Back to the situation here: Regardless of the general economic picture, both California and San Francisco are facing major deficits, which are certain to cut support for the arts even more. The state, which has had big surpluses recently, is now expecting a deficit of $28 billion; the city is looking at $245 million deficit in fiscal year 2025 and a $555 million deficit in the following year. For the state, an 8 percent cut is expected in general.

London Breed
San Francisco Mayor London Breed | Courtesy of the Office of the Mayor

Both Newsom and San Francisco Mayor London Breed are activists on behalf of the arts. Breed’s efforts to “revive” San Francisco have included bringing the performing arts back to the city’s downtown, which historically thrived with stores, theaters, and concerts but today stands mostly empty.

The problem is that goodwill alone cannot improve the situation, which — again — cannot get better while there are major cuts coming in state and city budgets.