California Arts Funding: RIP 

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

I n late July, lost amid all the hullabaloo over whether a certain actor would announce his plan to clean and jerk the governorship, California's senate approved a hotly contested measure to stanch the state's $38 billion deficit. Six days later, Governor Davis signed the bill into law. In the process, Davis and the legislature coldcocked the California Arts Council, the state agency responsible for making grants to artists and arts organizations throughout the state. The new budget reduced the council's General Fund appropriation to $1 million, down from $18 million last year and $35 million the year before that. The Arts Council managed to escape outright extermination, but it won't be able to make any grants and is scrambling to figure out how to support California arts organizations without any money.

While every one of California's 53 counties will be affected by the new budget, Alameda County -- which came in third after Los Angeles and San Francisco counties for Arts Council grants in 2002-2003 -- stands to take a dramatic and long-lasting hit. As a way of looking at what this will mean to the East Bay, consider that the Arts Council granted $1.5 million to Alameda County artists and arts organizations alone in 2002-2003. That's half again as much as the Arts Council's entire General Fund budget for 2003-2004. Contra Costa County received another $426,457 in funds.

California's per capita arts spending is now lower than that of any other state in the country. "California has the bleakest financial picture," says Laurie Schell, executive director of California Arts Advocates. "My colleagues at other alliances in other states have fought the good fight to maintain their funding -- I don't believe anyone else has been cut as severely." The numbers bear Schell out. Last year's budget allowed for a per capita allotment of about 37 cents -- the cost of a single postage stamp. But now it's even worse at three cents a head -- the cost of a supplemental stamp. The national average is a comparatively luxurious buck.

Nobody denies that the new budget is an ungainly solution to an ugly problem; the legislature held its nose to let this one through. It wounds almost everyone. The Technology, Trade, and Commerce Agency disappears entirely in January 2004, and the duties of the state Film Commission and Tourism Program will be turned over to the Department of Business, Transport, and Housing. Library funding will be cut by 50 percent. Medi-Cal will see a 5 percent reduction. Sixteen thousand state jobs will be lost.

But few divisions have been hit as hard as the Arts Council, whose support nourishes countless California arts organizations. And as it lies gasping for air, artists and arts administrators across the state are wondering how they're going to continue bringing their programming to the public. Meanwhile, many museums, galleries, and theater companies are reducing hours, cutting staff, and slashing performance schedules.

For 27 years, the Arts Council has provided matching grants for artists and organizations in the fields of visual, performing, literary, musical, and new-media arts. Grants fall into one of eleven categories, from artist fellowships and residence programs to multicultural advancement and traditional folk arts. The council provides money for operating expenses, touring companies, and arts education programs.

The list of Alameda County grantees is three single-spaced pages long, and includes everyone from the Alameda County Art Commission and Ashkenaz to West African drum teacher Dr. Zakarya Sao Diouf. Also on the list are dance companies, gospel choirs, small presses, orchestras, museums, theater companies, and several community organizations. The grants range from a few thousand dollars to more than $110,000; some grantees received only one grant in 2002, some several. Some of the organizations have been around for decades, and some are just beginning to walk.

The California Indian Storytelling Association, currently run out of executive director Lauren Teixeira's Fremont home, falls into the latter category. The association is sponsoring festivals that bring together Native American storytellers to honor their elders and traditions. "For native people, stories have always been a part of everyday life," Teixeira says. "You tell stories at the kitchen table, as part of rituals or gatherings. You didn't have events that were specifically for telling stories. We're doing something new. In modern times, people are not necessarily with their elders the way they used to be, or their elders are not with them, so we have to re-create that experience through our festivals." The association has held eight festivals so far, mostly in the Bay Area. It also offers workshops where participants can do research, learning about their background and what stories may be available to them.

The Arts Council funded the first storytelling festivals in 1998, and provided funds through a grant program to establish the organization. That allowed Teixeira to set up a statewide board and bylaws and establish nonprofit status. Arts Council funds paid for the association's Web site, newsletter, and office supplies. "It wasn't a lot of money, but it was enough to get us started," she says. "I don't know how we would have done it without it. We've been able to travel, attend conferences, publicize, and make it possible for people in the Native community to join us. Now we will have to find money elsewhere."

Even as the organization loses its state funding, it happily is receiving its biggest grant ever from the National Endowment for the Arts. But the federal grant probably wouldn't have been possible without the initial state support. "With us out of the picture, you have more groups fighting for a smaller pool of dollars and without the imprimatur of the Arts Council," says council spokesman Adam Gottlieb. "'Past grantee of the California Arts Council' is sort of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."

People concerned about the budget cuts worry about what will happen to organizations that are just starting out. "Funders are going to be less likely to risk money on new programs or projects because there's less money to go out and more people who need it," Teixeira says. "They'll fund proven projects and programs. It's a good thing we've already started, because if we started today we probably wouldn't get the funding."

The Center for Art in Public Life, run by the California College of the Arts (until recently the California College of Arts and Crafts), helps students reach out to the community, offers grants and fellowships, showcases faculty work, and works to incorporate arts and "social-justice programming" into K-12 curricula. The center, which is entering its fourth academic year, received three council grants last year for a total of $104,128.


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