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ARTS AT LARGE / JACK MATHEWS : Art Bucks Aimed Well, for Once

What a week for San Diego arts! A $6-million week. On Monday, the City Council approved $3 million in bed-tax money for the partial funding of Mayor Maureen O’Connor’s 1989 Soviet arts and culture festival. On Friday, philanthropist Muriel Gluck announced a $3-million gift intended for the arts education of San Diego youth.

And, by the way, $45 million in transient-occupancy tax money was approved for the refurbishment of structures in Balboa Park.

I don’t know whether the Soviet arts festival will put San Diego on the international cultural map, which is how the mayor has explained its urgency. I tend to agree with those who feel a city’s cultural image is made by the art it exports rather than what it can get on lease.

Still, the high profile that O’Connor has put on the arts this year--first by proclaiming 1988 the year of the arts in San Diego, then by creating a massive guessing game as to what she intended to do about it--has certainly caused some healthy reflection among members of the local arts community.

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If the 1989 Soviet festival proves to be the first in a regular triennial cycle, as O’Connor promises, it will make this week’s City Council decision look like a penny anted on a winning $500 poker hand.

But, of the two $3-million infusions this week, there is no question that Gluck’s gift is the better investment--both in the city’s future and in the current arts community. Among other things, the money will cover the salaries of about 50 visual artists who will teach children in each of San Diego’s 107 elementary and five middle schools.

Two of the Gluck millions will go to the San Diego Unified School District, the third to the San Diego Museum of Art to cover related educational programs.

You have to hold your breath whenever money is dumped into a bureaucratic maw, where the buying power of a dollar declines in direct proportion to the number of fund accounts through which it’s filtered. But, if those 50 artists are well chosen, and the various programs are carefully constructed, Muriel’s money is going to go a long way in whetting the artistic appetites of San Diego’s next generation.

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In Rochester, N.Y., where I worked a dozen years ago, arts programs for children were routine. Elementary school kids were taken to the Rochester Philharmonic and given doses of Bach and Beethoven as frequently as San Diego children are taken to gander at the prehistoric bones on display at Balboa Park’s Museum of Man.

That compact city in Upstate New York--which is smaller than San Diego but lives bigger--has a strong cultural base, for several reasons. It is a white-collar town, the home of Xerox and Eastman-Kodak, and of the academically rich University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology. The corporate pockets run deep, and so does the community’s passion for the arts.

There is, for arts consumers, the added incentive of bad weather. During my last winter there, Rochester raced off--without the benefit of steroids--to a record 262-inch snowfall season. That means that, if the snow didn’t melt--and it didn’t melt much--there was about 20 feet of it on top of the snow shovel you forgot to bring in after the first storm.

For most of the year, the weather ruled out a lot of social choices that in San Diego are the preferred pastimes: the year-round back-yard barbecues, golf, sailing, swap meets, sitting in Jack Murphy Stadium hoping against hope for the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs, standing on the corners watching all the girls go by.

If one event turns out badly here, you just hop in your car and go somewhere else. In Rochester, you could hop in your car, but you couldn’t be sure it would go anywhere. The engine was often as frozen as a smile on Mary Tyler Moore’s face. Skipping out at events also entailed lengthy garment rituals--the laying on of scarfs, the awkward (particularly for women) tugging on of boots and galoshes, the Herculean efforts required to don massive overcoats.

I am not implying that culture is the beneficiary of suffering. It is simply that, the greater the commitment you make to enjoy something, the greater your enjoyment.

These Tales of Rochester are by way of saying that the arts face vastly stiffer competition in San Diego than in perhaps any other U. S. city. Talk to the leaders of any arts organization in town and you will hear similar bemoanings about the difficulty in building a base of consumer support and of expanding the base of private and corporate donors.

On a relative scale, San Diego does not skimp on its arts obligations. Our $5 per-capita spending is among the highest of major American cities. But, in an urban burg where galleries are closing faster than topless bars, where the symphony convenes a press conference to announce that it has broken even for the year, what can be done to invigorate the arts?

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The answer rests, in large part, with the next generation of San Diegans. It rests with the amount of exposure children get to the arts at a young age. It rests with the quality, the concentration and--above all--the pleasure of that exposure.

The $3 million donated by the Maxwell H. Gluck Foundation on Friday doesn’t assure an elevation of arts appreciation in San Diego, but the money is being aimed--with laser-like efficiency--at the place where it stands to do the most good.

With three months to go in the “Year of the Arts,” Muriel Gluck has my vote as the year’s most valuable player.


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