by Ms. Beak
Gore Vidal called San Diego “the Vatican of the John Birch Society,” which often sounds a lot closer to the mark than “America's Finest City.”
“Finest City” suggests some sort of Shangri-la, where every little kid has a stuffed teddy bear, couples romp naked on the beach and bunnies are humping on every lawn. But bunny-humping may not be everyone's measure of a cool town.
Some say a city is defined by plentiful Starbucks and the number of citizens enrolled in the Donny and Marie fan club. On that scale, San Diego is darn near paradise.
But others say the true measure of a city is how it deals with artists, the people who refuse to work for telecom startups and instead waste their time creating cool stuff. This is the deadbeat standard. Great cities show a willingness to support and cultivate their deadbeats, creating a city of freedom and mental enterprise.
Some may say that, on this scale, the city of San Diego vaguely resembles towns in medieval France where creative types were stuck in pillories and had their genitals whacked with large sticks
To the typical San Diego civic leader, culture is reading the program at a Chargers game without spilling chili on it.
The city's effort to promote wanton, mind-expanding orgies of arts and culture is led by the wittily named Commission for Arts and Culture. The commission recently did an exhaustive investigation of itself and decided, gosh darn it, it's doing a great job.
The commission issued a report based on the study, which focused on the economic impact of arts and culture in San Diego for the year 2001, the commission's annual attempt to prove it didn't blow its whole budget on a finger painting party at Chuck E. Cheese's.
In total, according to the report, the arts commission laundered $8.2 million of city hotel tax dollars to 90 arts organizations, which in turn attracted 1.8 million “cultural tourists” to San Diego for at least a day. These wacky cultural tourists spent “an average of $131 on arts-related programs during that one day,” suggesting that many travelers are going on serious corn dog binges at the Space Theater snack bar.
Overall, the study concluded arts and culture generated an “indirect” impact of $213.2 million, using a widely accepted bureaucratic formula for creating bullshit numbers. Under the commission's theory, when the Monet-lovin' psycho from Baltimore spends his $6 for a postcard at the Museum of Art, the museum then spends that $6 on salaries for gardeners. So the dollar gets spent twice and thus the “economic impact” should be doubled.
Outside of bragging about all these mysterious free-spending tourists, the study is a wee bit short on specifics, such as who got the money and what they did with it. The report only says 90 organizations “leveraged” the $8.2 million, which averages out to $91,000 per group-chump change for the big museums and theaters.
San Diego artists say the commission is a lapdog to the lame-ass Balboa Park museums and senior citizen arts groups. San Diego artists know in their souls that if they're not doing whale murals or juggling for the turistas, well, they'd better get the heck out of Dodge.
This is a fairly sensitive issue to the folks at the commission. The report emphasizes that $3.7 million of the $8.2 million “went directly to artists.” In the same graph, it says “$6.5 million went to personnel expenses,” which, of course, adds up to $10.2 million, not $8.2 million, but this is art, not math.
Either way, artists howl at the idea that the city is giving millions “directly” to artists, unless the commission wants credit for supporting the artistic endeavor of the museum security guard who is collecting Playboys.
In fact, if it weren't for a few tech sugar daddies, San Diego's art scene would consist of little more than a guy doing pencil drawings at Seaport Village. Earlier this month, Qualcomm honcho Irwin Jacobs plopped down $5 million for a downtown branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art, which means the museum director might be able to get a new Mercedes.
But that's a long way from giving $5 million so artists can hang out in Ocean Beach, smoke dope and paint whatever the hell comes into their head. That's what you need to really have a vibrant art community. Art scholarships accomplish that. So do exhibits of local artists. And so does financing for local films.
To really support its local art and culture, the city must be willing to let a guy stand naked on the street corner reciting an ode to toasters. It just goes with the territory. In places like San Francisco, Seattle and New Orleans, the weird are tolerated and supported, sort of an honor guard to the artistic spirit of the city.
Art is about creating something for no other reason than it might look cool. Who knows, maybe it will free the soul of some Penasquitos haus frau. But that's just gravy. Art is about the freedom to do some completely zany, without the slightest realistic hope anyone is going to give a damn.
Art school dropouts can sit around their hookahs and debate the meaning of art until they puke, but one thing can't be argued: art doesn't have squat to do with attracting pasty-faced tourists from Iowa.