Budget agreement allocates $8.3 million to California Arts Council

The California Arts Council will have its largest budget since 2004 under a new state spending agreement

Gov. Jerry Brown has a reputation as a budget hawk who'll pounce on stray spending he thinks could leave California's state government with IOUs that its coffers can't cover — and he lived up to it Tuesday, striking a deal with lawmakers that pares $2.2 billion from the budget that the Legislature had passed the day before.

But the hawk is sparing at least one mouse-sized spending increase that will begin to restore California's perpetually withered funding of the California Arts Council, the state agency that makes grants to nonprofit arts organizations across the state.

The arts budget agreed to by the governor and legislators authorizes $8.3 million from the state's general fund — $2.1 million more than Brown had proposed for the 2015-16 state budget that takes effect July 1.

"That's a great win," said Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian (D-Sherman Oaks), who has pushed for improved arts funding. "It's important now to focus on spending this money wisely and demonstrating the quality-of-life enhancements that the arts can bring. Then we can make the case" for increases for the arts in coming years.

The arts council will remain a speck in an overall general fund budget of about $115.3 billion.

Factoring in additional revenue — a $1.1-million federal grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and $2.5 million in projected donations from Californians who pay extra for special arts-supporter license plates or give via their state income tax returns — the arts council's budget will reach $11.9 million, its biggest budget since 2004, when Gov. Gray Davis and legislative leaders made draconian cuts that essentially have remained in effect since then.

The new normal for annual general fund spending on arts grants became about $1.1 million, the minimum needed to draw a matching amount from the feds. That was down from a peak of about $30 million in the early 2000s. The lingering cuts have left California chronically at or near the bottom in per-capita state arts grant funding, spending just a fraction of the national average of $1.09 cited by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

Two years ago California allocated 18.5 cents per resident to the arts; that rose to 27 cents in the current budget year that ends June 30 — and will now grow to about 31 cents.

With the increase, the arts council will be authorized to have 19.5 positions instead of 17.5.

Perhaps the best news for California's arts advocates is that $8.2 million will become a new floor for annual arts spending from the general fund — more than five times the previous base funding of $1.1 million.

The arts council has managed on occasion to secure additional money from the general fund — including a $5-million increase for the fiscal year that ends June 30. But those increases have been considered one-time infusions. Going forward, the arts council will be penciled in for at least $8.3 million when annual state budget deliberations begin, rather than $1.1 million.

Given its starved funding over the last decade, the arts council has all but abandoned general grants for exhibitions and performances. It focuses instead on arts education and initiatives that use the arts as a tool for neighborhood revitalization and economic development.

Grants totaled $4.15 million to 341 recipients in 2013-14, the most recent year for which complete figures are available, but they're expected to reach $6.8 million in the current fiscal year that ends June 30.

In 2013-14, the average grant was $12,155, ranging from $1,000 to help high school students compete in a national poetry recitation program to $75,000 each for public broadcasting outlets KOCE in Orange County-Los Angeles and KQED in San Francisco, funding their coverage of the arts.

One of the grant categories, totaling $592,000 in 2013-14, is support for county and city governments' arts agencies, which redistribute the money according to their own priorities. The city of Los Angeles' Department of Cultural Affairs and the Los Angeles County Arts Commission received about $13,000 each.

The arts commission is overseen by an 11-member panel of politically appointed volunteers. Nine are tapped by the governor and one each by the Assembly speaker and Senate president.

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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