Culture. Or as they say in America’s capital of culture, New York City, kulcha. Everyone’s for it, who could be against it? We’ve gotten a number of communications from representatives of what’s described as the “arts and culture industry” in Mayor Bates’ proclamation endorsing today, Oct. 1, as “California Arts Day” and October as “Arts and Humanities Month.” The Arts Day press releases are chock-full of shocking statistics about the California’s sorry state of support for the arts, the worst of which is this, from the California Arts Council:
“California is the fifth largest economy in the world, yet California is ranked 50th in the nation for per capita support for the arts. The state spends less than three cents (2.7 cents) per person. The national average is $1.10; New York spends $2.75 per person.”
It can’t get much sorrier than that: below even Mississippi or Alabama. California has been accumulating dismal statistical comparisons to other states as the Davis-Schwartzegger era moves forward. Just look at spending on schools as compared to spending on prisons in this state, or at slashed funding for state institutions of higher education. We got an anguished anti-Bush letter from a correspondent in Missouri who complained that she seems to have fallen into the Bible Belt by mistake. Here in California, despite our Democratic vote in presidential elections, we seem to have landed in Lower Slobbovia, the home of unwashed illiterates lampooned by Al Capp in the L’il Abner comic strip of yore.
And yet…we don’t actually lack culture in this state, or in Berkeley. The Bay Area alone supports perhaps 15 small companies which present European classical opera. Blessed with a steady stream of immigrants from countries with respect for culture, we have Persian theater, Chinese classical orchestras, Mexican dance troupes…all kinds of great stuff. What we lack is a decent level of support from our own government for our citizens’ cultural endeavors—no one could argue with that. But instead of beating what in Berkeley should be a dead horse, we’d like to explore here what else can be done to support arts and culture in a time when cash is scarce.
In the first place, we should try to stop thinking of the arts as a cash cow. The city proclamation says that “arts and culture funding is a critical investment in…the economy of our state, and the arts are a catalyst for economic growth, cultural tourism, and downtown redevelopment.” Well, sure. Accompanying our copy of the Mayor’s proclamation was a pricey city-funded report from a consulting group called “Arts Market” purporting to show actual cash benefits returned to the economy from arts expenditures. The conclusions are probably true, but they’re not 100% relevant. “Art for art’s sake” is a hoary slogan, but the intangible benefits that we gain from cultural pursuits as individuals and as a society are much greater than the dollars involved. Kids who take some time in the school day to sing a few songs or dance a bit are better learners in all subjects. Seniors who join a madrigal singing group almost certainly see benefits in their blood pressure.
What can Berkeley do to promote involvement in cultural activities besides spend more money that doesn’t seem to be forthcoming? Well, for starters, city policy regarding space for the arts should promote much more than downtown redevelopment. The West Berkeley Plan was carefully engineered to preserve unstructured space for the practice of arts, and yet the last year has seen both open and furtive attempts to snatch that space away from artists and deliver it to real estate speculators. West Berkeley artist John Curl was summarily dumped from the Planning Commission and replaced by a proponent of commercial exploitation of West Berkeley. The Nexus gallery space continues to be the focus of pro-development pressure. Citizen-initiated landmarking might buy a bit of time for Nexus, but the forces which see West Berkeley, and the Gilman freeway exit in particular, as ripe for the picking are strong.
Even downtown, in Berkeley’s officially designated arts ghetto, it’s been a constant struggle to save space for the arts. The UC Theater was headed for “redevelopment” as yet another cookie-cutter housing project, with faux-storefronts as a sop to the arts, when it was temporarily saved by, again, citizen-initiated landmarking. No one in City Hall, despite campaign promises to the contrary, has yet come up with a viable plan to re-use the great open space which the UC offers as a 700-seat performance hall, which is urgently needed by the Berkeley Symphony, repertory cinema and other endeavors which attract medium-sized audiences. City government greased the skids for the eventual obliteration of the Fine Arts Cinema, which a chorus of cynics accurately predicted would happen, in order for Panoramic Interests to construct more of the luxury student apartments which are going begging this fall. The monster Seagate project is getting away with providing token rehearsal space to Berkeley’s most favored, best-funded arts organization, the Berkeley Repertory Theater, in return for being allowed to build an extremely generous number of bonus condo units. Us cynics aren’t fooled.
What’s needed, and what has been suggested by a number of critics, some in these pages, is for the city mothers and fathers, at a minimum, to drive much harder bargains with the Panoramics and the Seagates. In return for agreeing to run roughshod over the Downtown Plan on Seagate’s behalf, Berkeley should at least be able to demand a broad-based and substantial contribution to the arts from the developer. Perhaps, for example, Seagate could provide seed money for getting started on the adaptive re-use of the UC, its near neighbor.
There are many other cases in point, too numerous to list here. The bottom line is that if the city fathers and mothers really believe, as they proclaim, that Berkeley should support arts and culture, there are ways of doing so even in an era of diminished funding.