Column: Jodie Evans brings her aesthetic and her CodePink politics to the California Arts Council

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As the brand-new governor of California, Jerry Brown in 1975 crafted the California Arts Council; he said the arts were “central to life.” In that first year, he turned over space in his office to about half a dozen arts shows. The Arts Council budget from the state general fund that year — $1 million. And for nearly 40 years, it stayed at a million dollars. As of this year, it’s $15 million from the general fund, and another onetime haul of $9 million.

This is also the year that Jodie Evans joins the council. Brown appointed her four days before he left office — and more than 40 years after she was right there when it all began. She’s an artist herself and an old friend and onetime campaign manager of Brown’s. She is also the co-founder of the women’s activist group CodePink. Pink is a strong color in any artist’s palette, and an eye-popping one on the political rainbow.

The California Arts Council — what does it do and what do you want to do with it?

Well, the interesting thing about getting appointed to the California Arts Council was that I was one of the advocates for its founding in 1975, and [arts patron and a MOCA co-founder] Marcia Weisman was really pushing for it to happen; [she] totally believed in art for the public.

And I was at her home at the funeral for her son when I got the [governor’s] call that I was appointed.

So 44 years later it's really kind of magical that I find myself in this position. A lot has happened and many amazing people have been on the California Arts Council up until now, and what it was about is the arts are essential to a healthy person, to a healthy community, and to a healthy world.

And I'm an antiwar activist and my work is about peace. We look at the war economy that really is driving things, and you need a peace economy, and culture and art are core to that.

So I'm very excited to be a part of it for that reason. They've done so much over the 44 years. Now I think there's a huge piece of the budget that's invested in prisons because it's such a good way for people to heal, for finding empathy, for even finding their voice. That's why it's so important in schools. It’s just a crime that it was ever defunded in schools.

So a lot of the funding is for programs for schools and programs for community. Another awesome thing about the arts is they bring people together. They're kind of a class bridge, and really helping us see ourselves in each other and humanizing us.

Where does the money come from?

In the California budget, a certain, very small percentage goes to arts. Gavin [Newsom] in his new budget has $10 million more to add to it. He sees the value of art.

Now California is pretty low as far as what the state invests in the arts. I think at one point it was almost 50th per capita. I would really love in my tenure to help raise the budget much more. There's so much to be done ... in how we make our communities healthier and how we can invest in more community art.

Some cities I think have bigger [arts] budgets than the state of California, like San Francisco and San Jose. … You’re talking billions of dollars created for the state from the creatives and you're not funding it enough. Matter of fact, I think the No. 1 thing that corporations look for now in employees is creativity.

How does the Arts Council define art? What qualifies as art and how does it decide how to spend its money?

The arts are very broadly defined, and the decision is around a vision. The council comes together and says, oh, here's an area that's underfunded, or here's some healing that could happen in the community if we fund this.

One of the things is that the funding be in diverse communities that don't get funding. It's not like you want the money to go to LACMA, because it's going to get money from people of wealth. You want it to go into places where money isn't flowing, especially arts around poverty. In neighborhoods where you have more art programs, it affects poverty, it affects health, it affects kids graduating from high school. So it's finding where that infusion and that investment could help the health of the whole state of California.

In 1975 when this arts council was begun, there was still arts funding in the schools, there were still arts programs in the schools. Now, with the disappearance of money, there's the disappearance of art programs as well. What are the consequences of that?

People did say what was going to happen when you took the funding away from arts and schools. But I don't think enough people experienced how bad it would be without the arts in schools. If you haven't been nourishing a whole spectrum of arts, then you've got a ways to go. It takes a while to rebuild. It just needs to be nurtured.

The comeback to that is, well, look, there are museums; kids can create art and see art on their phones, on their iPads. So why do you need programs?

They’re how we learn that we're human, and what “human” is, and how we express ourselves. And that's what the programs are in these communities; with the arts, you can find your way to your own voice. You can discover even who you are

I was just with Frank Gehry at breakfast and he was talking about a program that actually came out of the Arts Council. He now has 40 schools that they’re funding art projects in. And David Hockney had gone up about a year ago to help a school where 60% of the students are homeless.

And David Hockney comes in with them, and what that experience is, to be a kid be taught by David Hockney, and then what they produce is so amazing.

He told me that David Hockney has since gone up and taken those students to his opera that was in San Francisco. He drove them to the opera and then afterward had them stand on the stage.

I see what happens at [the nonprofit student writing project] 826LA, when these young students come in. The only students we serve are those that qualify for school lunch. You have students that don't have a parent at home because they're working three jobs. A parent doesn't speak English, doesn't know how to help them with their homework, and we help with homework and then writing.

I know that we serve the student, the school, the teacher, the parent, the community. You're not just serving a student, you're serving their future.

You were appointed by Jerry Brown to this council. You and Jerry go way back. I don't think of him as an artsy guy; I think of him as cerebral but not aesthetic. Where am I wrong?

Oh, I would disagree. He's very aesthetic. He was just showing me a picture of the table that he's had ever since 1972 that is going to be at the [Brown family] ranch. I know a beautiful furniture designer that designed the table that was in the governor's office where he had meetings. It was elegant and beautiful and [Brown] picked the woods. He definitely has an aesthetic.

What is your artistic background? I know your late husband was a great collector.

Well I'm actually an artist. I came to California to get a degree in design. I come from eight generations of potters. I also play the harp, and I make documentary films — “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” about Daniel Ellsberg, and “The Square.” That happened because I was watching everything that was happening in Iraq and I was like, we need a whistle-blower. Somebody has got to tell the truth about what's happening here. We need to tell this through the whistle-blowers, so there'll be more whistle-blowers.

And then Dan went to Russia and he met Ed Snowden. And Ed grabbed Dan by the shoulders and he said, “When I saw ‘The Most Dangerous Man in America,’ I had the courage to do what I did.”

Talk about the relationship between artistic institutions, like LACMA or the Broad, versus the kind of demotic art you're talking about — art that doesn't have walls, that’s something you do at home or something you do at school or in the street.

I have to be careful here because institutions are created to benefit the elite and that's a problem. And it's about capitalism and greed and investment and assets. Yes, there's amazing art on those walls, and yes, it's awesome that some of them are open to the public and you can see that.

But they're also problematic in the sense that it creates a market, it creates greed, it lets few people determine what art is and leaves others out.

What's great about the California Arts Council was the intention was that art would be broad and it would be diverse, and it would be available to many audiences.

That was really why Marcia was fighting so hard for it. Marcia Weisman was Norton Simon’s sister, and she wanted to break down the walls of the museums and wanted art to be something that was available to everyone both in the creation and in the end experience.

I came here to go to art school and the first thing you did was go to LACMA; it looked very different then. I would say museums have been forced to change over that 44 years and become more available to the public, and free, and to have programs.

You're wearing your “CodePink for Peace” button. You're wearing your “no human being is illegal” earrings. You co-founded Code Pink with Medea Benjamin. Where does its work stand?

We started because [president George W. Bush] was frightening the American people into war with code red and code orange and code yellow. So we called it “CodePink for Peace.”

At CodePink we have both the work of growing a local peace economy, for people to really start to understand how much we all live inside of this war machine and how much it affects our lives, and then to divest from war.

Cities, states, counties, your pension plan, churches, universities — people are all invested in war, which I say means you're making a killing on killing.

The pope has come out very strong against the investment in weapons, but we're not going to stop these wars unless we get to the root causes of what's happening.

CodePink has also been very visible and canny about putting over its message in places like the White House and an NRA event. Do you think those events work? How do they play in the public mind?

[As an example, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice was going to Congress. and she's going to sell you war again. And there we are, with red hands, and one of the librarians, part of CodePink, put her hands around Condi’s face and said, “You have the blood of Iraqi children on your face.” And that picture went around the world.

I would say another one was when Cindy Sheehan, whose son had been killed in Iraq, was at the Vets for Peace conference in Dallas. I said, “Why don't you go on down and knock on George Bush's door and say, ‘What noble cause did my son die for?’ ”

And she did, and for a month we were outside George Bush's ranch saying, “What noble cause?” Many mothers came -- mothers and fathers -- who had lost their children in Iraq. And nobody would open the door.

For some people, what we do is uncomfortable because we are telling the truth in a sea of lies. And for some people that's really hard. We try to be creative and disarming when we do it because we're peace activists. We don't want to create any kind of pressure. If you're just screaming, you create more resistance, but we try to be clever with our messages so that people laugh at them but also get the message at the same time.

Can you eventually can you hang up the pink? What’s your idea of winning?

My idea of winning is lowering the budget that we spend on war by about 80% and by investing in peace, which includes the arts, investing in those things that connect us, that remind us that we're human, and we’re not going to get through things unless we’re connected.

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