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Arts Funding Threatened By Two State Assembly Bills

Friday July 11, 2003

Artists and advocates for the arts plan to gather on the steps of city hall in San Francisco on Wednesday to protest the proposed gutting of the California Arts Commission, the state agency that gives about $17 million per year to artists and arts organizations throughout the state. 

Two Assembly bills now being considered to either cut funding to the agency— from about $18.2 million to about $750,000— or eliminate the agency altogether to help close the state’s $38 billion budget shortfall. 

Established 27 years ago during Governor Jerry Brown’s administration, the Arts Council largely funds local organizations that bring arts into the classroom. Last year, the agency gave a total of $1.5 million to arts organizations in Alameda County and about $426,000 to Contra Costa artists. Among the local grantees are the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which got about $26,000 this year, the Berkeley Arts Magnet, which got about $11,000, and La Pena Cultural Center, which received $50,000. 

Eliminating the agency will also mean the loss of federal arts dollars: In order to receive grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, a state must have an arts agency to administer those funds. According to Arts Council spokesperson Adam Gottleib, about $1 million in NEA funds is funneled through the Arts Council. If California eliminates the council, it would be the first state in the country to eliminate its arts agency, Gottleib said. 

Patrick Dooley is the executive director of Shotgun Players, a Berkeley-based theater group that received about $4,000 this year from the council. He said the loss won’t break the organization’s back, but is still significant. “We only charge $10 per ticket,” Dooley said. “That means we have to sell a lot of tickets to make up for that $4000.” 

Although funding for the agency has dropped significantly in the last three years— from $30 million in 2000 to $17 million in 2002— artists and other advocates for the arts say the consequences of gutting the agency will reach beyond the loss of actual dollars.  

“The message it sends to people is that the arts are disposable, that they can just be removed. It’s pretty scary and shortsighted,” said Dooley, adding that the Berkeley city council and mayor’s decision to create an arts commission was important in promoting arts locally. “It sends a really strong signal to people about the importance of the arts.” 

Jennifer Easton is director of development and marketing for the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, a $1.2 million organization that received $5,600 this year for a program that brings orchestras into schools and allows students to attend free concerts.  

“If you zero out the California Arts Council, it sends out a message saying that the legislature doesn’t believe funding the arts is part of the government’s responsibility,” she said. Easton said eliminating the Arts Council would also mean the loss of economic activity generated by the arts, as well as the more subtle, indirect benefits of arts on the culture. “It makes smarter kids, more creative thinkers,” she said.