Mayor Sees Arts in San Diego Coming of Age

San Diego County Arts Writer

With this week's State of the City address, the arts in San Diego received a big boost from a mayor who, until recently, had shown relatively little personal or professional interest in promoting local culture.

Why did Mayor Maureen O'Connor designate 1988 the "year of the arts," proposing a monthlong Soviet arts festival, conversion of two public buildings into museums--one to hold an "international" collection of Dr. Seuss art--and increased government funding? How does O'Connor's new interest in the arts, often labeled elitist, square with her own populist image?

The mayor explained her position in an interview Wednesday, praising the intangible values of the arts to future and present generations and the pragmatic benefits of an arts festival to both business and the larger community.

"You cannot ignore the cultural arts aspect of a city," O'Connor said. "I think it's an enriching dimension that lasts, and it's a dimension that history will judge us by."

Describing herself as "not brilliant" when it comes to the arts, O'Connor observed that the arts in San Diego have not held a high priority on the City Council's agenda, but that regardless of an elected official's interest, part of the job requires representing all of the community including the arts.

"The arts world--geez--20 years ago when I was 21 . . . was just a flicker in everybody's eye. It was just starting to come of age. Now, through the local artists and our museums, we're coming onto the national scene and will be on the international scene. We're sending plays to Broadway, and we're having local artists shown in New York.

"I think that the government does have to reflect that back to the community. And the best way to do that is through the mayor's office. If the mayor has anything, it's the ability to communicate what San Diego is all about. I think we have to start being more supportive than we have in the past."

Inspired by Scottish Festival

O'Connor's support for the local arts scene began to flower in August while attending Edinburgh, Scotland's, annual music festival. One night as she listened to a performance by the Soviet Union's Bolshoi Symphony a thought struck her: "If they can put together this kind of talent--and not only the Soviets, but they had it from other parts of Europe as well--why can't we do this in San Diego?

"Their city was smaller in size. It's an older city. We have as much talent in San Diego as their community, and why can't we?"

That mayoral brainstorm quickly turned into action when O'Connor asked the two men sitting next to her what they thought about San Diego playing host to a Soviet arts festival. The men, the Soviet ambassador to Great Britain and the Soviet minister of culture, thought it was a dandy idea.

The populist side of O'Connor likes "the idea of being able to share another part of the world with the community of San Diego at large, that can't afford to go to Moscow and see the treasures of the Soviet Union. But we can bring those treasures to San Diego, and, in the end, we'll be educating the people of San Diego about another culture. Hopefully this will be the first of many (international arts festivals)."

Focusing on the arts is relatively new for O'Connor. In her first year in office, she concentrated on issues such as growth management and sewage disposal. But recently she has pushed for the expansion of staff and board members on a proposed powerful commission on arts and culture.

O'Connor believes that the community at large will benefit from plans to transform the Navy Hospital library building in Balboa Park into a museum featuring a special collection of "internationally renowned works."

"It's in a city-owned building," she said. "It's centrally located. Hopefully, we can make it accessible to everyone. We want our citizens to experience it. If you're working through government, you've got to be able to let them experience it at little or no cost."

On Wednesday, local author and artist Theodor Geisel, the creator of the popular Dr. Seuss books, confirmed that he is talking with the city officials about offering a Dr. Seuss collection to the community.

"We're having conversations." Geisel said. "That's about all I can say at this point. Any kind of statement will confuse the issue, I'm afraid." One problem of placing Dr. Seuss works in a museum is that Geisel has already donated about a third of his collection to UCLA.

Pressing for Business Support

O'Connor wants to see more business support for the arts, and she believes that the city should increase its annual allocations of hotel and motel bed tax money to the arts.

"I think we ought to start giving more of an emphasis to the arts through our TOT (transient occupancy tax) funding because, if you have good programs, you attract tourists," she said.

"That's why a Russian festival for a month, because you're going to be attracting tourism from all over the country. Transient-occupancy tax money is for the sole purpose of promoting the City of San Diego, and this (an arts festival) falls solidly in that category. We have ample T.O. tax money. It increases every year."

Staging a monthlong international arts festival would focus attention on the local arts as well as drawing new business support, O'Connor said. "(A festival) brings everyone together. It's a goal the arts community can identify with and the business community can identify with."

She thinks San Diego will support an arts festival with the same enthusiasm the community has shown for the Super Bowl, which is scheduled for Jan. 31, and the America's Cup regatta, which is to be raced here in 1991.

To ensure business support, O'Connor plans to use the same technique she used to get businesses to donate $160,000 for the homeless.

"I'm going to invite them in for lunch. I say, 'Here's the project. This is how much we need. Can you help be part of the solution for San Diego?' I found them to be very responsive, very positive."

The mayor has received little support from San Diego County supervisors, however, for her plan to convert the County Administration Building into an arts center. Calling the historic building San Diego's "signature card," O'Connor said that the San Diego Unified Port District has "plenty of money over the long term" to acquire that building and "an obligation, in my opinion, to give back some of the riches to the community."

O'Connor acknowledged what others have said, that making reality of her vision for the arts in San Diego will not be easy, especially funding a monthlong arts festival.

'Tough to Negotiate

"I've got to tell you, anything worth doing is going to cost some money. It's (the festival) going to be tough to negotiate and put together the financial package. We'll figure out how we'll get the funds. I'm not a type of person who says, 'Oh, it's too complicated, let's don't do it.'

"But in the final analysis, if it's done well, the city wins and they win big."

The preparations for the festival are moving ahead. Today, O'Connor flies to the Soviet consulate in San Francisco, where she hopes to arrange plans for a San Diego delegation to travel to Moscow to meet with Soviet arts officials.

"It's a beginning," she said.

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