Dec. 2 2014 06:19 PM

New Commission for Arts and Culture director says she's ready to hear what San Diegans have to say

Photo by John Durant

Dana Springs is power-networking, leaping from one conversation to the next as she makes her way through a crowd gathered around a food truck at Makers Quarter. She's excited for people to see the premiere of the nine videos that the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture and the San Diego Tourism Authority created to promote each of the city's districts as arts-and-culture hotspots.

As the rest of the crowd sits down to watch the first video on the outdoor screen, Springs leaps up and checks to see if the sound can be adjusted. It's one of her first big public events as the new executive director of the Commission for Arts and Culture, and she wants everything to be just right.

"I really want this to be fun," Springs said earlier in her office, a few hours before the screening. "It felt too confined to roll these out in an administrative space.... I wanted it to be cool and outdoors, and Makers Quarter's cool, and we love what they're doing. They're actually the perfect example of what we're trying to feature in the videos."

The hipper-than-average, city-sanctioned event is just one recent outgrowth of the new blood at the commission, and local arts leaders are hopeful that important transformations are inevitable.

Springs, who twice in the past few years stepped out of her 12-year role as manager of the commission's public-art program to serve as the commission's interim director, was officially named the executive director in August. A few months later, Mayor Kevin Faulconer appointed longtime arts professional Larry Baza as chair of the commission.

Baza's known for pushing for diversity in the arts and is expected to help shake things up at the commission. And while Springs might not have the credentials and managerial experience one might expect in an executive director, she seems willing to listen, learn and eventually nudge the commission toward at least gradual, measured change.

"She can only shake things up so much," says Mark-Elliot Lugo, a former art critic and independent curator who founded the public library system's visual-arts program and worked closely with Springs before he retired from the library. "She knows how to walk that line between what's best for the arts and what's permissible within the culture of the city and its bureaucracy. I think she knows the best way to get accomplished what needs to be accomplished and can do so while ruffling the least feathers."

What changes Springs intends to make, though, is unknown. She's currently in research and information-gathering mode and is already looking into more methods of data collection so she can better measure how well the commission's already serving the community. One of her first tasks since taking the post has been embarking on what she's calling her "listening tour," talking to the heads of the roughly 120 arts-and-culture organizations to which the commission grants money through two annual programs funded by a portion of the city's transient-occupancy tax, or hotel tax.

"I knew it would take me about a year, and I'm only through about 20," she says of the tour. "But it's been incredible so far."

Springs says she's getting useful feedback and already has a few ideas, like having the commission play a larger role in connecting organizations and helping them match and share resources, especially venues. She also recently went to an evening arts-and-craft fair and noticed that the event could've used better lighting. She's wondering whether the commission could help grassroots groups with that kind of basic-but-expensive need.

Expanding the commission's programming is an obvious avenue for change. Currently, the commission's funding programs comprise the core of what it does: $7 million of its $10-million budget is granted to nonprofits, which then assist the commission in its goal of bringing arts and culture to the masses. The commission also runs the city's public-art program and manages the public-art collection.

Other similarly sized city arts councils, though, offer more, like working with schools on arts education, offering continuing-education resources for artists and arts leaders and implementing innovative grant programs that target creative businesses and entrepreneurs (recognizing that culture is also produced by people outside of nonprofit organizations). A few city or county arts councils even survey their local arts landscapes and fill in the gaps by producing their own big, cultural events.

Another clear area the commission could improve upon is marketing. Its online presence is currently restricted to the city's often tough-to-navigate website, and its uses of social-media and even email communication are virtually nonexistent. If you're an artist looking for the latest public-art opportunities, for example, you're directed to follow Springs on Twitter, yet her last tweet was in November of 2013. On the other hand, Springs is the founder of a popular Facebook group that provides resources for San Diego artists, so she's savvy when it comes to social media, but she says she simply doesn't have time these days.

"We have beautiful stories to tell, and that's one thing I really regret and I miss is my participation in social media," she says. "But I had to make a choice about how to manage my time and attention when I started serving as the interim director, and I decided it made sense to cold-turkey it rather than limp along in this lame way."

Yet another easy area to critique is the city's overall reputation when it comes to public art. "Vanilla" is often the term used to describe it, and the San Diego's notoriously conservative climate is often blamed. 

"I'm not prepared to say that San Diego isn't a great public-art city," Springs counters. "Do we have opportunity for different approaches? Absolutely. And that's super exciting, and I hope this office can pursue every single one of those different avenues."

While Springs isn't ready to lay out any specific plans for the commission's future and, when conversations turn toward change, is careful not to make any promises or commitments, her colleagues are quicker to tout her potential.

"I'm hoping to see big changes," says Vernon Franck, another recently appointed commissioner. "And I think Dana's capable and willing to take on big change—I really do."

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