Cultural equity discussions: Summer 2014, San Francisco, California; Summer 2006, Houston, Texas.

This summer I got looped in the fighting over cultural equity funding for the arts – or the lack of it from the perspective of some – in San Francisco. Angry testimonies swirled on the ethersphere, arising out of a perfect storm of a very rough summer of arts groups’ displacement, shocking collapse, confusion, fear and anxiety. I also listened to angry testimonies at an emergency focus group meeting called after the dire announcement from Intersection for the Arts’ board of directors.  Shortly into the focus group I had the thought that I had attended this same meeting before.  That in fact I’ve been attending variations of these meetings for nearly thirty years now and that the testimonies of injustice, sadly, were somehow the same.

My first introduction to arts politics took place in Houston in spring, 2006. The wonderful Project Row Houses hosted a national conference on arts and community development. The Ford Foundation’s community development program director sponsored and asked me to address the assembly of mostly arts professionals on the basics of real estate development. Ford’s program director was trying to get the groups to understand basic real estate development principles so they weren’t constantly at the mercy of ever-changing market forces.

But a fight broke out almost immediately during the opening plenary session.  Several attendees stood up and spoke angrily about the inequity of funding in the arts community.  “The issue is not real estate related,” one participant declared, “the issue is the big houses (symphony, opera, ballet, big museums) always being entitled to the lion’s share of the money while the rest of us have to constantly justify and fight for our existence.”

What a welcome!  My initiation to the politics of arts funding had begun.  Her statement triggered other declarations of injustice that spread like wildfire throughout the room.   There was barely time left to get in a word about arts and real estate development.

I can understand the frustration. Did anyone see the recent 60 Minutes segment on the Metropolitan Opera in NYC?   General Manager Peter Gelb has embraced new entrepreneurial approaches to generating revenue, like broadcasting in HD in cinemas throughout the world.  These broadcasts have grossed nearly $60 million for the Met.

Still, the Met is one hundred million dollars in debt!  I can imagine the calamity if I tried to set up the chronically in debt Metropolitan Opera at the 950 Center for Arts & Education (soon to be reprogrammed and renamed – stay tuned!).   Perhaps we should send them to the Northern California Community Loan Fund for a financial work-up. On the opera’s shocking debt, Gelb offers:

Opera’s always in debt. From a business point of view, opera shouldn’t exist. I mean, it only exists because there are enough people who love opera and my job is to try to persuade them that it is necessary to change in order to keep the art form alive. Otherwise it will die with them.

A pretty sober and refreshingly candid response. Cultural equity follows cultural values, i.e. society digs opera and still finds it worthwhile to keep it afloat even though it is deep in an ocean of red ink and altogether not a sustainable business.

This is, of course, a bit simplistic.  And to be fair, the Met employs 3000 people while generating big tax bucks as an important part of NYC’s vital arts-based hospitality economy.  And maybe they’re providing great educational programs to thousands of youth like the SF Symphony does.  (Also, on a personal note, while I’m not an opera person I don’t mind some of my tax dollars going to support it if I know that a portion of that money is going to benefit company carpenters, set designers, writers and the line cooks and dishwashers at the restaurants across the street, i.e. my peeps.)

That said, it would be nice if we stop stomping on the little guys and asking them to hold to standards a major institution like the Met itself can’t meet. The 950 Center, as one example among many, has been subjected to many lectures about the necessity of being in the black and not requiring subsidy. (Nip and tuck here and there and we’re now doing better than the Met!)  The Tenderloin’s rich arts ecosystem of Luggage Store Gallery, EXIT Theatre, LINES Ballet, Cutting Ball Theater, Center for New Music, CounterPulse, and others are also critically important to the city’s arts-based hospitality economy and should be treated as such on equitable terms.

Yet here we are again. (And again.  And again.)  As usual there is no shortage of bomb throwers while rational conversation remains elusive.  I do know there are several smart and thoughtful individuals in the Bay Area arts community who are saying something structural is broken.  The arts community must take this up.  Maybe we should start with what Tom DeCaigny, Director of Cultural Affairs, SF Arts Commission, suggested – a data driven approach.  Whatever we do our goal should be to stop sniping at each other and start generating new dollars for the arts.