In June, hundreds of local nonprofit leaders filed into a room in Downtown's County Administration Center during two days of hearings, each there to make a two-minute pitch to the five members of the county Board of Supervisors about why their organization deserves funding.
The pot of money up for grabs was the Community Enhancement Program (CEP), funded by county hotel taxes.
Leaders of arts-and-culture organizations, optimist clubs, land-conservancy foundations, wildlife centers, educational programs, Alzheimer's centers, veterans' organizations and chambers of commerce all lined up behind a lectern, nervously awaiting their chance to woo the politicians.
Hoping to stand out amid the often heartstring-pulling messages, arts groups sometimes perform live at these annual hearings. This year, San Diego Children's Choir gave an endearing performance and ended up receiving money from multiple supervisors.
"I want to thank you for this opportunity to speak about the capacity the arts have to transform individual lives," Ginger Shulick Porcella, executive director at the San Diego Art Institute, said in her pitch. SDAI was left wanting.
San Diego County's approach to funding arts organizations is unusual, and some question whether it's fair and yields the best results. Naturally, many arts advocates would prefer a process under which county funds are set aside specifically for the arts and then administered by an arts oversight panel designated by the county Board of Supervisors. That panel, often called an arts council, would be recognized by the California Arts Council through the State-Local Partnership Program, which provides modest annual funding and assistance.
The state's support is partly what makes having an arts council a no-brainer for counties. Fifty of the 58 counties in California have an arts council. Seven of the remaining eight that don't are either small or sparsely populated. While not all of the county arts councils are funding agencies, they do support and promote the arts countywide.
"The people on a county arts council are the only ones who wake up in the morning thinking about how they can improve the arts-and-culture ecosystem of the entire region," said Daniel Foster, executive director of the Oceanside Museum of Art, who helped form an arts council in San Bernardino County in 2010. "There's all this potential in a county's arts community that's untapped when everyone is in silos."
Local arts-and-culture organizations have been left without such a resource since 1993, when the San Diego County Public Arts Advisory Council was defunded. Some arts leaders say it's time to bring it back.
"The Advisory Council did so much with just a little bit of money," said Leah Goodwin, the Arts Advisory Council's last director. "I think San Diego is growing into an arts mecca, and the supervisors would be smart to consider reestablishing it."
In fiscal year 2014-15, each county supervisor had $708,000 in CEP funds to hand out to nonprofits and county programs that promote tourism and economic development or otherwise improve quality of life.
The CEP is one of two main county funding sources for arts-and-culture organizations. The other is the Neighborhood Reinvestment Program (NRP), under which each supervisor gets $2 million—a recent increase from $1 million—to put toward one-time expenses for county departments, public agencies and nonprofit organizations providing needed services.
Both pots of money are discretionary, meaning each supervisor can hand out money to organizations both inside and outside their districts, with a few basic restrictions, including a ban on contributing to religious endeavors. The NRP has attracted plenty of criticism for being a "slush" fund sometimes misused by supervisors.
In contrast, the CEP generally flies under the radar, but it's the primary source for county money for small and mid-sized arts-and-culture groups, which means it, too, has its critics.
"If you look at the money given to arts organizations from supervisors, it's uneven," said Larry Baza, who serves on the city of San Diego's Commission for Arts and Culture and was a director of the now-defunct Arts Advisory Council. "It's all about who gets the supervisors' ears and—bottom line—what will get them votes."
CityBeat talked to several arts advocates who didn't want to criticize the process on record for fear of hurting their chances of getting county funding in the future. Those sources said the CEP encourages supervisors to make decisions in a vacuum and help pet projects rather than those most deserving. They also criticized the fund as being too exclusive— in part because the county doesn't do much to get the word out, which means the same established organizations apply and get money every year.
"That was part of our job at the Arts Advisory Council," Goodwin said. "We worked hard to get arts organizations to apply."
Some critics also said that pitting arts-and-culture groups against other nonprofits and county programs doesn't make sense. Arts councils are composed of people with expertise in the arts, so, in theory at least, they make more informed decisions.
There's no doubt that arts-and-culture organizations benefit under the current system, but CityBeat wanted to know how much. We analyzed the most recent allocations in both the CEP and NRP and calculated the percentage of the funds that end up in the hands of arts-and-culture groups. We defined arts-and-culture organizations as those with visual or performing-arts programming and also included groups like historical societies and centers that provide cultural programming. We left out business associations, optimist clubs and foundations that maybe provide cultural programming because it proved difficult to determine.
As for the CEP, District 3 Supervisor Dave Roberts came out on top with roughly 47 percent of his total funds going to arts-and culture organizations. District 2 Supervisor Dianne Jacob was at the bottom, with just 26 percent. District 4 Supervisor Ron Roberts came in at 45 percent, District 5 Supervisor Bill Horn 32 percent and District 1 Supervisor Greg Cox 29 percent.
As for the NRP, which gives priority to capital projects and therefore doesn't end up with arts-and-culture organizations as often, Ron Roberts was the largest contributor, with 28 percent.
Jacob was again at the bottom with zero funding. Dave Roberts came in at 23 percent, Horn at 9 percent and Cox at 4 percent.
"You're going to ruin my reputation," Ron Roberts joked when told of his relatively high percentage of arts-and-culture funding.
Although the District 4 supervisor is largely credited for the robust public-art program at the new County Operations Center in Kearny Mesa, he said he's not necessarily working toward becoming the next Pam Slater-Price, the former District 3 supervisor known for her generosity to the arts. He said his main concern is funding any group doing important work.
For arts-and-culture funding, Roberts said he tries to find projects that donors wouldn't want to fund.
"I just got a nice thank-you note from the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego," he explained, referring to his grant of $20,000 from the CEP. "In their case, they have a problem with their air conditioning, so I went over there and actually went on the museum's roof to see it before I funded them."
He offered the anecdote as an example of why the NRP and CEP work well. He said he and other supervisors know the county's needs best. The applications for both the grants are relatively easy, he said, and since the money isn't bogged down by the traditional budget process, it's an extremely efficient funding source. He estimated that about 10 times more groups submit applications than are funded; the numbers, he said, are proof that the county does a good job marketing the grants.
When presented with the numbers, Jacob and Cox cited ball fields, youth recreation facilities, park and trail improvements and libraries as examples of amenities that take priority over arts and culture. Horn didn't respond to CityBeat's request for comment.
"I'm extremely proud to say arts and culture are important," District 3 Supervisor Dave Roberts said.
He said he's happy to continue carrying Slater-Price's arts-friendly torch. He said, however, that criticism of the decision-making processes behind both special funds is valid, which is why he's set up a CEP advisory panel to help him allocate funds. He's the only supervisor to set up a formal advisory process; the others make decisions privately.
"We all know the supervisors don't want to let loose control of any of those dollars," said Patricia Frischer, coordinator for the San Diego Visual Arts Network. "But maybe what they would want is to have some professional advice—a stamp of approval from an arts council so they would be confident in their choices . Right now, all they have is a chief of staff maybe, or their own experience; they're not calling upon art professionals."
Baza offered harsher criticism.
"The county should have a transparent, competitive process where artists and arts organizations can get a fair cut of the pie," he said. "As it is, the county's arts commitments are made like the Medicis—the Italians who patronized the arts. If you didn't get money from the Medicis, you were shit out of luck."
Read the second of the two-part series, in which we dive deeper into whether a county arts council is a feasible solution. Natalie Eisen helped research this story.