State’s U.S. delegation gets a B in arts support

Times Staff Writer

California continues to rank dead last in per capita state funding for the arts, yet a new report by a national arts advocacy organization gives the state a B grade and ranks it 17th in the U.S. when it comes to arts support from its delegates in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In the wake of massive budget cuts, the state spends an annual 9 cents per citizen, compared with a national average of $1.17. But California’s strong support for federal dollars for the arts suggests that the poor record at the state level has more to do with the state’s overall economic woes than a weak commitment to the arts.

The B grade for the Golden State comes from the Congressional Arts Report Card, released this week by Americans for the Arts Action Fund, a nonprofit membership organization in Washington, D.C., dedicated to promoting public support of the arts and arts education.


“I’m really happy that we’re on the upper end, but this is California -- we really need to be further up on the scale in my estimation, which means we need to educate our congressional representatives to a greater degree on the value the arts bring to this state,” said Juan Carrillo, interim director of the California Arts Council.

Andy Finch, senior director of government affairs for Americans for the Arts Action Fund, called it a coincidence that the report was released so close to the presidential election. He said that the Bush administration has supported the National Endowment for the Arts -- the president has asked Congress to raise the agency’s budget by $18 million, to $139 million, for fiscal 2005 -- and he predicts that arts funding will not be a deciding issue in the race.

The Bush campaign office did not return calls for comment. A call to the Kerry campaign office prompted a two-page, single-spaced statement detailing the candidate’s history of supporting the arts and arts education. On the National Endowment for the Arts: “John Kerry fought against deep cuts to the NEA budget in the mid-1990s and has consistently supported efforts to restore its funding. John Kerry understands the valuable role the federal government plays in promoting the arts and that a federal commitment is important to leveraging private funding.”

Each state’s letter grade was based on the voting records of its U.S. representatives on 11 arts-related measures in 2003-04. In assigning the grades -- A-plus to F, accompanied by scores of 100 down to 0 -- the most weight was given to four votes on funding for the NEA.

The study also found that support for the arts is becoming increasingly bipartisan, continuing a shift that began in the late 1990s after the federal arts agency eliminated most of its controversial grants to individual artists.

Although this bipartisan support is growing at the national level, the situation is somewhat different in California, where individual scores for representatives swing wildly. Among the state’s congressional delegation of 53, only a handful got Bs, and there were only two A’s from Republican members: Rep. Mary Bono of Palm Springs and Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of Santa Clarita. The other California Republicans earned Cs, Ds and Fs.


“There’s a big cultural divide in our delegation,” said Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento), one of six who received an A-plus. “This is reflective not so much of the issues but of the different kinds of members being elected by either party. Look at Los Angeles versus San Diego, or the Inland Empire or the Central Valley. We’re actually five different states -- that’s the problem.”

The report may foster dialogue between arts patrons and their representatives, Matsui said. “If they see that Congress member Y has a D voting record, they can say: ‘Maybe we should get together with that person,’ ” he said.

Why letter grades?

That’s what Finch has in mind. The action fund’s report, he said, is “a tool. It’s very complete in terms of providing all of the actual votes, but not everyone is going to have the time or inclination to go one by one. The purpose of a grade or a score is to give you a general idea of where the votes are going.”

In tallying results, each representative received an individual grade, and the average became the state’s overall grade. An action fund spokeswoman said that the organization did not issue a similar report card for the Senate because bills dealing with appropriations for the NEA first go through Congress, and in recent years the Senate has not sought to overturn the recommendations made in the House.

Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood) said she was “just tickled” by her A-plus grade. “I think it’s sort of a way of identifying those members who really are committed to arts issues and sort of playing up the members that need some help in that area, I guess.”

Matsui joked that some Congress members might be proud of their low grades. Three of the five representatives who received an F, Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Rocklin), Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy) and Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) did not return calls requesting comment.


The politicizing of art

California’s B grade is consistent with the average mark for all House members. Vermont ranked highest among the 50 states with an A-plus, followed by Connecticut, Delaware and Hawaii in a tie for second place with A grades. Wyoming ranked last.

The document notes that the highest-ranking states have small House delegations. Among states with more than 10 House members, Massachusetts (ranked fifth) and New York (10th) finished in front. Overall, New England evidenced the strongest support for the arts; representatives of the South were the least likely to enter pro-arts votes.

Matsui said that the idea of arts supporters going directly to the politicians entered the scene during the “culture wars” in the late 1980s, when the NEA came under heavy fire from conservatives and the religious right for funding controversial artists, including Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano.

“Until that time, artists pretty much stayed out of politics; they didn’t want to get their hands dirty. After the right wing came after them, they decided to get involved,” Matsui said. “These kinds of reports are always good to have -- Realtors send them out, the doctors send them out, all the major lobbying groups send them out, and the arts should as well.”