Aug. 13 2014 01:41 PM

Second in a two-part series about how the county does and doesn't support cultural organizations

arts council
Illustration by Lindsey Voltoline

It's been more than 20 years since the demise of the San Diego County Arts Advisory Council, an organization that promoted the arts countywide.

Leah Goodwin, the council's last director, noted that the panel didn't have influence over the county Board of Supervisors' use of discretionary funds. Instead, it managed its own modest grant program, the Voluntary Fund for the Arts, which was paid for by donations solicited by a brochure inserted into residents' property-tax bills.

"The money didn't amount to much," Goodwin says. "But we were able to support public-art projects in the county; we had a program that helped cultural organizations diversify their boards, sent out newsletters about all the arts-and-cultural events going on in the county.... We did a lot with what little funds we had."

The Voluntary Fund pulled in about $30,000 annually, which the Arts Advisory Council distributed to projects proposed by a pairing of an artist and an arts nonprofit.

"We were one of very few organizations that funded individual artists," Goodwin said. "We found that if you give an artist just a few thousand dollars, they can come up with just really beautiful, amazing things."

When Supervisors Dianne Jacob and Pam Slater-Price were elected to the board in 1993, they successfully pushed for the elimination of dozens of county programs that weren't state-mandated. The Arts Advisory Council lost funding but was allowed to apply for the county's Community Enhancement Program (CEP) funds, competing against hundreds of area nonprofits, including the very arts-and-culture organizations the advisory council served. The supervisors granted the council $150,000 the first year, but the following year—after Goodwin pushed for control of a portion of CEP money—the supervisors opted against funding the council, effectively killing it.

Last week, CityBeat looked at the two main county funding sources for arts-and-culture organizations, the CEP and the Neighborhood Reinvestment Program. We talked to advocates who say that while plenty of organizations benefit from the current system, it's time for the county to look for a new, more transparent, professional and equitable option for funding the arts.

The most obvious solution is resurrecting a county arts council, yet it's unclear what role it would play. California's county arts councils follow varied models.

While most large urban counties like San Diego have arts councils that are official government departments, others have independent nonprofits. Some run county art galleries and amphitheaters while others work with school districts to offer arts education and/or run robust audience-development or public-art programs. Almost all county arts councils operate shared calendars that connect residents to arts happenings.

About half of the 50 county arts councils in the state operate as granting agencies that fund arts-and-culture nonprofits. The others are mainly advocacy and assistance organizations. The Los Angeles County Arts Commission, for example, doles out more than $4 million in annual grants. Orange County, meanwhile, doesn't offer any annual arts grants, yet does have an active arts council that's working to restore county funding and otherwise support the arts countywide.

The city of San Diego follows a much more common approach. The city's Commission for Arts and Culture has two programs, both funded by hotel-tax revenues. Victoria Hamilton, executive director of the commission from its inception in 1988 through 2012, said one important role of an arts council is developing professional criteria for evaluating grant applications specifically for arts groups and ensuring that the distribution is transparent and fair.

"Through my work over the years for public art agencies, I have certainly seen the benefit," Hamilton says. "For example, when I first moved to San Diego in 1988, I found that the leaders of the arts organizations didn't know each other and didn't work together. Part of the criteria in the city's grant application was asking a question about collaboration and partnerships, so I think that helped influence and strengthen that aspect of the city's arts community. I think there is a nurturing role an arts agency can play."

Hamilton says the idea for starting a new county arts council has been tossed around for years, but the signals from the supervisors have been clear.

"They're satisfied with the process as it is," she says.

Recently, April Game, executive director of Art Pulse, has been the most active arts-council advocate—even setting up county forums to discuss the idea back in 2011. Yet she recently told CityBeat that Art Pulse was winding down operations and she'd no longer be active in the arts community.

"If the conversation has advanced that some cultural infrastructure at the county level would be good, then great," Game said in an earlier interview. "But San Diego is on its own now."

Craig Watson, executive director of the California Arts Council (CAC), says it's too bad San Diego isn't actively advocating for a county arts council, because now is a better time than ever. He says the county's already missed out on state funding since its arts council closed. And while the CAC currently provides just $12,000 annually through its State-Local Partnership Program to county-recognized arts agencies, Watson says the program will likely be a "significant recipient" of extra funds stemming from CAC's enhanced budget, recently increased from $5 million to $10 million.

"As to how much, it has not been decided," Watson says. That decision could be made at an Aug. 28 meeting. "It will be more than $12,000."

Felicia Shaw heads up the arts-and-culture arm at the San Diego Foundation and recently served on a panel of arts leaders for the "Thrive" component of Live Well San Diego, a county initiative to improve health, safety and wellbeing. She says the panel put together a list of recommendations for the Board of Supervisors. High on that list was making arts and culture a priority.

The county will likely do something tangible with the panel's recommendations, but Shaw says she's not convinced an arts council is the best solution.

"I do think the community is ready to participate in the full spectrum of decision-making for the best use of public funds, though," she says. "And I would hope the leadership is ready to engage everyone…. But whether we actually need an arts council with all of its administrative underpinnings and costs, I really can't say. I think we can all come up with a more innovative way to distribute funds."

District 3's Dave Roberts has been the supervisor most receptive to the idea of an arts council, or at least to improving the process for distributing discretionary funds, yet even he wonders if another layer of bureaucracy is the answer.

"What more would we gain with an arts council?" Roberts asks. "I am looking at the option very closely; it's something I'm very passionate about…. But I don't want to just quickly jump at something."

District 4 Supervisor Ron Roberts says he and the rest of the supervisors aren't as open to the idea.

"It's just not going to happen while this board's in place," he says.

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