Arts backers hail Perez' $2-million budget gift, but aim for more

Arts backers hail Perez' $2-million budget gift, but aim for more
California Assembly Speaker John Perez (D-Los Angeles) is being praised by arts advocates for adding $2 million to the budget of the California Arts Council. (Rich Pedronceil / Associated Press)

California arts advocates are thanking Assembly Speaker John Perez (D-Los Angeles) for putting money where his mouth is by adding $2 million to the budget for the state's arts grantmaking agency. But they're also vowing to keep pushing for better and more permanent funding than Perez's one-time infusion.

Perez couldn't be reached Monday after the Arts Council announced that he was using discretionary funds under his sole control to reverse, and then some, the 7.6% cut imposed under the state budget passed last month and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.


John Gallogly, executive director of the Los Angeles stage company Theatre West and a board member of California Arts Advocates, said the speaker's action backed up his rhetoric at a reception in March at a Sacramento art gallery, La Raza Galeria Posada, where Perez had received a leadership award from the Latino Arts Network of California and the Multicultural Arts Alliance of California.

"He talked eloquently about how in the Depression Franklin Delano Roosevelt insisted arts be part of the WPA," Gallogly said, referring to a massive federal jobs program that encompassed performing and visual artists as well as traditional public works projects. The additional money is "a small step in the right direction, but it's an important step," Gallogly said.

Brad Erickson, president of California Arts Advocates, said he hopes the special allocation, which lifts that Arts Council budget to a shade over $7 million for 2013-14, will establish a new floor for future budget discussions. "We'll definitely go back to make sure we get at least this much," he said, "and we'll be pushing for more."

Erickson said that an ambitious bill that failed this spring, introduced by Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian (D-Sherman Oaks), helped focus Sacramento's attention on the need to improve arts funding.

Since 2003, when the Arts Council's budget was cut more than 90%, California had ranked last nationally in per-capita funding of its state arts agency, escaping the cellar only in 2011, when Kansas axed its entire arts budget. The Arts Council's biggest budget was $32 million in 2000-01, when state coffers were temporarily flush from the 1990s boom in technology stocks.

Nazarian proposed that the state commit to providing at least $75 million a year for the Arts Council -- an investment of about $2 per capita that would have vaulted the Golden State close to the top 10 nationally in funding its state arts grantmaking agency.

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Erickson said that Wylie Aitken, the chairman of the California Arts Council, and council member Rosalind Wyman, a former Los Angeles City Council member and longtime Music Center board member, played important roles in keeping the conversation alive with Perez even after Nazarian's bill was frozen in the Assembly's appropriations committee, giving it no chance to be put to a vote.

"I think whatever conversation we started will lead to more dialogue and, hopefully, something more permanent" for state arts funding, Nazarian said. "This wouldn't have happened without the speaker's interest in ensuring a positive outcome."

Nazarian said he's considering introducing a new proposal that would oblige the state to match money that motorists contribute to the Arts Council through a special license plate program that has been its largest source of funding. The match would be capped at a certain amount.

After years of budgetary neglect, the Arts Council in recent years has envisioned parlaying the license plates into a much bigger source of revenue. They're expected to generate $2.8 million in 2013-14 from motorists willing to pay $50 above the usual cost for new plates or $40 for renewals.

The Arts Council has set a goal of $39 million -- the estimated revenue from selling 1 million plates a year instead of the current 60,000 to 70,000. Last year it enlisted celebrities including Robert Redford, Debbie Allen and Placido Domingo to deliver the message on electronic billboards, but so far there has been no bonanza.

“We’re actively working on the next step for the campaign,” said Mary Beth Barber, an Arts Council staff member who’s coordinating the effort. “An announcement will be coming soon.”