Arts & Culture » Culture

California Arts Funding: RIP

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

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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 CAC.ca.gov, 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.

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