Who will perform for the arts?

At a time when the California Arts Council is handing out only one-tenth of the grants funding it did a decade ago, and when the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs will take a 6.1% hit to its 2008-09 budget, the race to succeed retiring county Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke is of intense interest to the local arts community.

That’s because L.A. County government has become the chief public resource for local arts funding, annually spending more than $60 million supporting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Natural History Museum and such performing arts facilities as the Music Center, the Hollywood Bowl and the Ford Amphitheatre. And the county funds a diverse range of nonprofit arts organizations and programs, including Inner-City Arts downtown, Angels Gate Cultural Center in San Pedro and the nationally renowned Center Theatre Group, which includes the Ahmanson Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum and the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

And it is Burke who has been the major driving force for the arts on the Board of Supervisors. In 2004, she successfully pushed for a civic art policy that requires 1% of the county’s capital budget to be spent on public art. Currently, more than 50 public art projects are underway throughout the county. As important, Burke championed the county’s Arts Internship Program, which has provided summer jobs for more than 1,000 undergraduate college students during its eight-year history.

Although there are nine contenders in the June 3 primary, the race is really between two of them: City Councilman Bernard C. Parks and state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas. Unfortunately, not much is known about where the two stand on the arts. Speaking at a forum last month presented by Arts for LA, a collaborative of arts leaders, Ridley-Thomas supported the idea that the county should contribute more to the operating budgets of nonprofit arts organizations. Parks is scheduled to address the group May 17.

But the arts community needs to press the candidates for more specifics. It can’t simply cross its fingers and hope that Burke’s replacement will be as supportive of the arts as she has been. Too much is a stake for the arts community.

Grants from the Los Angeles County Arts Commission give our major arts institutions and community-based arts organizations the ability to expand their services. Over the last two years, the grant program has nearly doubled, from $2.5 million to $4.5 million, making it the most reliable public resource for local arts.

How important are these grants? The HeArt Project can now create workshops for teens who have dropped out of school, been expelled, served time in jail or are a parent to hone their artistic skills while working with professional artists. The Gabriella Axelrad Education Foundation can continue its everybody dance! program, which teaches close to 1,000 students ballet, hip-hop, tap and modern dance. And the Canyon Theatre Guild in Newhall just hired its first technical director.

The Board of Supervisors also plays a significant role in arts education. In July 2002, it adopted an Arts for All program, a regional blueprint to restore sequential arts education programs in 80 school districts.

The county should be commended for not balancing its books on the backs of artists. But these are tough economic times, and L.A. County faces major challenges -- overcrowded jails, an overstretched healthcare system, a dysfunctional foster care program -- that will require more spending. In such an atmosphere, the county’s arts budget may become a target -- and Burke won’t be around to protect it. All the more reason why the local arts community must continue to press Ridley-Thomas and Parks for answers on their commitment to the county’s cultural life.

Michael Alexander is the executive director of Grand Performances and chairman of the California Arts Council.