State Sen. Ted Lieu

State Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) is calling for increasing California's taxpayer-funded annual allocation to arts grants from $1 million to $25 million. He's seen chairing a hearing Wednesday in Sacramento on the state's creative economy. (Lorie Shelley / February 12, 2014)

State Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) said Wednesday that he would submit a bill that would commit at least $25 million a year from state tax coffers to California’s government arts grant making agency, the California Arts Council.

If adopted, the measure would end a streak of 11 consecutive years in which California governors and legislators have allocated just $1 million to the arts council from the state’s tax-fed general fund -- a level that consistently has left the Golden State last in the nation in per capita funding of its state arts grant making agency.

With an additional $1 million in federal funding through the National Endowment for the Arts and about $3 million in donations, mainly from California motorists who pay extra for special arts-supporter license plates, the arts council’s overall budgets have been about $5 million a year, also good for last place nationally in many years, although at the moment it’s 48th, ahead of Kansas and Georgia.

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Lieu announced his proposal at the opening of a legislative hearing he chaired in Sacramento, in which the Senate and Assembly’s Joint Committee on the Arts reviewed a new report that offered the first statewide assessment in memory of how jobs in the arts and other creative fields figure in California’s overall economy.

The report, commissioned by L.A.’s Otis College of Art and Design and compiled by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., is being used as a piece of ballast as arts advocates mount their latest bid to float an improved arts council budget. The arts council itself made a $50,000 grant to Otis so it could expand what had been an annual look at the creative economy of Los Angeles and Orange counties since 2008 into a statewide study.

In opening the hearing, Lieu said the Otis Report on the Creative Economy confirms that bolstering the state’s creative capacity “is how we accelerate our economy and take California to the next level …. We’re not going to compete … making socks.” 

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Lieu said in a news release Wednesday that a $25-million appropriation for the arts council would, adjusting for inflation, set the clock back to 1983, the last year of Gov. Jerry Brown’s initial tenure in the governor’s office. The California Arts Council was created under Brown in 1976.

Crunching employment and earnings statistics from 2012, the Otis Report showed that California’s 681,400 creative workers pulled down an average salary of $90,130, 37.5% above the statewide annual average of $56,293.

The report defines creative fields broadly, and in fact would include Californians who make socks. In addition to core arts fields such as live performing arts, film and television performance and production, arts education, museums and galleries, architecture firms and recording studios, it includes digital media, radio and television broadcasting, advertising, graphic design, publishing, toy design and industrial design, clothing and furniture design and manufacturing.

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Arts advocates hope the employment and earnings figures, along with estimates of what creative sectors add to state tax coffers and their ripple effect on other industries, will have some pull among legislators and in the governor’s office.

With 17 full-time positions and an oversight board of unpaid political appointees, the arts council oversees state-funded grants to nonprofit arts groups and public arts education programs while providing other logistical and moral support for the arts.

Lieu, who’s running to succeed Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) in Congress after Waxman’s impending retirement, said in his written announcement of the arts funding bill that California’s current longstanding policy “is an insufficient investment in the state’s art programs, and it means art programs and art-related businesses are unable to thrive, and in some cases, to even exist.”

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Testifying during the hearing, Wylie Aitken, the Orange County trial lawyer who chairs the California Arts Council, said that with the Otis Report’s findings, “the evidence is overwhelming what the arts can do for this state.”

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) acknowledged that the Otis Report provided “a great opportunity to quantify in dollars and cents” how the arts boost the state’s economy. But she also wanted to emphasize the intrinsic benefits of fostering and funding creativity. “There’s something about the arts that can’t be quantified in dollars and cents ... [that's] fulfillment in people’s lives.”

Otis College President Samuel Hoi testified that the new report confirms that the arts sector is “essential to the 21st century economy. We’ve entered an age in which creativity will be a sustaining force.” California, he said, should reverse past thinking in which “arts has been taken for granted, and when finances get tough, it’s the first to be eliminated.”

That’s what happened to the California Arts Council in the early 2000s. After Gov. Gray Davis and the Legislature boosted the agency's annual funding to a peak of $32 million in 2000-01. With the state's formerly booming tech sector in retreat and a national recession setting in, they proceeded to slash the arts council's budget to $3 million by 2003-04 (including federal aid and voluntary contributions from California motorists). A bill in the mid-2000s increased the arts council’s take from the special arts license plates, allowing its annual budgets to grow to about $5 million.

The arts council's budget for the current 2013-14 fiscal year rose to $7 million because of a one-time allocation of $2 million from Assembly Speaker John Perez (D-Los Angeles), who provided the sum from a tax-funded account under his sole discretion. Brown’s budget proposal for the coming fiscal year that begins July 1 calls for arts council funding to fall back to $5 million.

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