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Politics left little for the economy to ruin

Times Staff Writer

The hand wringing has begun.

Forty-two of the nation’s 50 states have cut their arts programs a whopping average of 13.4% in the current 2002-03 fiscal year. More cuts are likely in many states next year. The drastic trims are part of a desperate attempt to help state budget planners come to terms with massive deficit projections that spread out as far as the eye can see.

California, perennial trendsetter, has assumed something of a leadership position in this slash-and-burn scenario. The California Arts Council’s budget dropped from a high of $30.7 million in 2000-01 to about $20 million this year and a proposed $11.5 million next year. That figure -- roughly 33 cents per capita -- would put the state’s commitment to arts funding at a level even lower than it was during the recalcitrant economic recession that plagued California in the early 1990s.

What this harsh turn of events might mean for California’s literary and performing arts will have to be left to others knowledgeable in those fields to decide. For the visual arts, though, this much is clear: Hand wringing is needless. A plunge in the arts council budget will have virtually no effect. Why? Because the council’s effect on the visual arts has always been negligible, even when the state agency was operating at a funding peak. Do the math. Nothing from nothing leaves nothing.

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For evidence, take a gander at the agency’s 2000-01 annual report, the most recent one available. (You can find it online at www.cac.ca.gov.) The No. 1 priority of any state arts council ought to be direct support for making and presenting works of art. Patronage is its purpose. But the annual report shows that’s not the case here. In California, creating and presenting art are almost at the bottom of the heap.

Arts production accounted for less than 4% of the 2000-01 budget, just 125 grants across the length and breadth of the state. Presentation of the arts -- 305 grants -- didn’t fare much better, with a little more than 11% of the expenditures. The rest, a whopping 1,290 grants and 85% of the budget, went to support the institutional bureaucracy.

Most grants funded things like organizational operations, instruction, technical assistance, conferences, curriculum development and marketing. By far the biggest single slice of the small California Arts Council pie -- nearly half -- went to programs in public schools and continuing education. You can argue, of course, that arts in education are important. You’d be right too. And because you’d be right, the funding ought not to be coming from the state arts council but from the California Department of Education. It’s time to stop robbing Peter to pay Paul, especially as Peter is already a poverty case, while Paul hardly benefits from receiving such meager stolen goods.

In an ideal world, 85% of state arts dollars would be spent on art, not on education, tech-help, conferences and the rest. Why the inverted priority in the real world? No mystery: Artists don’t have advocates in Sacramento. The arts bureaucracy does. The arts producers -- i.e., artists -- know this. They’re not stupid. Nor are the arts presenters, otherwise known as art museums (or theater companies, orchestras and the like). So today, a good number of artists and almost all arts presenters are not just in the primary business of making art and presenting art. Now, they’re also routine purveyors of social services. That’s where the funding is.

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Art in the guise of social service work took a big jump in the 1990s, in the wake of the Ronald Reagan-George H.W. Bush assault on federal funding for the arts. But it has been a growth industry for 40 years, ever since public arts funding first began to mushroom. Aiding tourism is among the latest big trends in federal, state and local arts council support. Youth initiatives, school-based or otherwise, are also big. With great fanfare, the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services announced in January that the percentage of museums’ median annual operating budgets spent on elementary and secondary school programs had increased four-fold since 1996. Does anyone detect a possible symbiosis here? Museums need money; grants, including state arts council grants, are available for school programs.

Pandering to genuine fears of social privation is common, with children routinely used as funding bait. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is especially aggressive with this approach. Its most recent pitch for the museum’s annual fund is a tasteless letter that begins: “For the children ... for extraordinary art ... and for our community.” Note that art gets second billing, right behind the pre-pubescent set. You can also argue, of course, that presentation of the arts will be drastically impaired if institutional operations are not stable and that the arts infrastructure is a complex ecological organism that needs careful nurturing and maintenance. What’s inarguable, though, is that the California Arts Council spent about the same amount of its 2000-01 grants budget on marketing and distribution programs as it did on the creation of works of art. The figure is roughly $1 million for art, $1 million for advertising.

That pitiful ratio is even more depressing when stacked up against an ongoing funding scandal. With one hand, Gov. Gray Davis was busy slashing the arts council’s 2002-03 budget before last fall’s election; with the other, he was forking over $2 million in potential arts council funds to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in West L.A. to underwrite its “Tools for Tolerance” program. “Tools for Tolerance” trains educators and criminal justice professionals on diversity issues. It has nothing whatever to do with art -- visual, performing or otherwise. The $2-million grant, later trimmed to $1.9 million, is the same amount “Tools” has been getting annually since 1998-99, when the arts council budget was not under siege. It’s also six times larger than any award California made to an arts program last year.

The arts council has no say over the Wiesenthal grant it must administer, because the governor and the Legislature specifically made the allocation. “Tools” is thus exempt from arts council peer review. It may or may not be a worthwhile program, but, either way, spending potential state art funds on diversity training for teachers and police is incomprehensible as public policy. As cultural politics, though, it’s simple to understand. Consider Davis’ dilemma last fall. If you were a hugely unpopular Democratic incumbent up for reelection in fiscally sobering times, whom would you rather have mad at you? Jewish Westsiders with political clout or California’s toothless arts constituency?

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The support of Davis and the Legislature for mixing state arts council funds with the Wiesenthal Center’s “Tools for Tolerance” program is shameless and cynical, but it’s also instructive. It reflects the status quo, which believes that the arts have little value on their own and matter only if positive social implications can be demonstrated. At least that attitude explains why drastic cuts -- or, for that matter, even big increases -- in the California Arts Council budget don’t matter to art at all.


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