Big push to raise state spending on the arts

Gov. Jerry Brown, who established the California Arts Council in 1975 during his first era as governor, will play a key role in ending 10 years of depleted funding.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

With California still ranked last nationally in per capita state spending on government grants to the arts, advocates hope an improving economy will bode well for the first legislative bid in four years to address its lowly status.

An Assembly bill introduced by Adrin Nazarian (D-Sherman Oaks) would dedicate $75 million a year from the state’s general fund for the California Arts Council — up from the current $1 million.

The bill, AB 580, passed the Assembly’s committee on Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism and Internet Media by a 4-2 party-line vote Tuesday. It now moves to the committee on Appropriations, which is where a 2009 arts-funding bill died amid a deep recession.


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Nazarian acknowledged that the $75 million “will most likely change” given competing funding needs. But now that state funding seems to be stabilizing amid improving tax revenues, he said, “this is the right time to have the conversation” about addressing the disproportionate cuts of a decade ago.

The Arts Council budget peaked at $32 million in 2000-2001, then was slashed 94% over the next two years under then-Gov. Gray Davis.

Overall the California Arts Council spends $5.6 million a year, but state taxpayers ante up less than 20% of the money. Most of it comes from voluntary payments by motorists who spend an extra $50 ($40 for renewals) for special arts-supporter license plates. About $1 million a year is federal money from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Excluding the feds, funding comes to 14 cents for each state resident, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA) — ranking California last behind Texas (15 cents) and Georgia (16 cents).

It left the cellar briefly in 2011, when Kansas eliminated its arts agency, but a new appropriation now places Kansas 47th.


“Of course there’s an embarrassment factor,” Nazarian said. “As the creative capital of the world, where we have Hollywood and the technological creativity in Silicon Valley, and where we have some of the best arts institutions housed within our state, it’s unfortunate that as a government we’re not reflective of the talents we offer.”

Nazarian said the $75 million was proposed by state arts advocates who felt it was reasonable for California to allocate $2 in arts-grant spending for each of its approximately 37 million residents — enough to put it near the top 10 nationally, according to NASAA figures. Ten states allocate more than $2 per resident, led by Minnesota ($5.88), Hawaii ($4.19) and Wyoming ($3.57).

At the hearing Tuesday, John Gallogly, executive director of L.A.’s Theatre West and a board member of the statewide advocacy group Californians for the Arts, presented each committee member with a crayon that cost 3 cents — the amount per resident that he said state government now funnels to the Arts Council if the federal and license plate money are excluded.

“We’re trying to say ‘give us a small box of crayons,’” instead of just one, Gallogly said. “You can’t create a rainbow with just one color.”

Arts-funding proposals in 2005, 2007 and 2009 all died in the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee, where the new one is headed.

The key arguments, Nazarian said, will center on the arts as an economic driver that generates sales, hotel and income taxes that will more than pay for the initial government outlay, and arts education as a key to fostering a more creatively-attuned and capable workforce.

Gallogly is hoping that Gov. Jerry Brown, who established the California Arts Council in 1975 during his first era as governor, will support the bid to end 10 years of depleted funding. “We have a sense that we have a very friendly ear at the end of the road, and that was not true for the last decade,” he said.


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