Tenderloin Arts Advisory & Friends, January 2015. Illegal arts funding in San Jose. Pumping up the Advocacy Volume with ABBA.

March 6, 2015

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The wonderful ensemble of the Tenderloin Arts Advisory & Friends, hosted by our friends at LINES Ballet.  January, 2015.

I hosted my last TL Arts Advisory & Friends on January 16th.  Whether the advisory continues or folds into Arts for a Better Bay Area (ABBA, see below!),  it’s time the arts advisory and advocacy builds an organizational infrastructure.   We heard from several dynamic speakers including Steven Anthony Jones of Lorraine Hansberry Theater, Terrance Alan of the California Music and Culture Association and Richard Livingston of the EXIT Theatre.  From Steven Anthony Jones we heard a charismatic call to organize, arguing that “the time is now.”  From Terrance Alan we heard an impassioned plea for San Francisco not to become one mega museum – an amusement park of charming cultural relics of yesteryear.  From Richard Livingston we heard a blunt testimony about the arts community being “ill prepared” to respond to the upcoming city budget negotiations.  Livingston went so far as to say the arts will never achieve an equitable outcome should they have to annually jostle for a place in the city’s general fund budget.  On this very important topic we discussed the decoupling of hotel tax revenues and Grants for the Arts, historically the city’s main source of operating funding for arts organizations.  We were advised by Tom DeCaigny, Director of Cultural Affairs, that the city’s attorney moved to decouple the hotel tax revenue from arts funding out of concern of potential legal exposure.

A lawsuit to challenge a percentage of hotel tax revenue going to the arts?  Really?  I suppose it’s possible – anyone can sue for anything in our system.  Years ago I worked with the Los Angeles Redevelopment Agency.  I tried to get more of the agency’s massive resources into the hands of small arts organizations, like the wonderful Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural in the San Fernando Valley.  The pushback came quickly: I was told that funding arts groups directly was illegal under redevelopment law.

But hold on!  Not too long after, the Ford Foundation asked me to do a site visit to the fantastic MACLA – Movimento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana.  MACLA received Ford Foundation funding for its outstanding work in bridging different groups and cultures in their neighborhood in San Jose, i.e. community building through the arts.  At the time MACLA was working closely with the San Jose Redevelopment Agency on a new facilities project.  I spent some time with SJRA officials to learn of their plans, and was very surprised that they involved significant operational support, the very kind the LA agency told me was “illegal.”

I asked the San Jose officials about this.  They responded “there’s always a chance we’ll get sued for any of our work by some tax-payer association of some sort.  That’s what we have lawyers for. We think the arts are important to invest in.”  Wow.  So the takeaway here, for me at least, is to keep a healthy skepticism when government officials offer quick dismals of proposals and programs being “illegal.”  There is often room for interpretation in the “law,” and what is truly the decisive factor is our leadership’s willingness, or lack thereof, to push the envelope.

In retrospect, it’s too bad there indeed wasn’t a lawsuit, one that came from the arts community when the link between the hotel tax fund and arts funding in San Francisco was severed.  The arts community was probably, as Richard Livingston said, ill-prepared to respond.   Note to ABBA: don’t readily accept “we can’t do that,” or “that’s illegal,” or, especially, “we’ve always done it this way” as answers.  Push our leadership to push the envelope.

Jammin’ with ABBA

On to good news! Arts for a Better Bay Area is here! Under the very capable leadership of Ebony McKinney and Lex Leifheit, organizing meetings are off to a great start.   To the extent my work has garnered support from many wonderful people in the arts and arts education community I ask that we all get behind ABBA’s efforts and give them a chance.  It will be a difficult, messy, confusing, imperfect process, but that’s the price we have to pay so we can’t be so easily dismissed by mayors and supervisors.  With perseverance we will get to a much better place as a community.

Judging from the diverse representation of people and groups I have seen in the organizing meetings held to-date, I see a great deal of promise in ABBA, and if they win, so will the arts community.

Want to learn more?  ABBA’s hosting its next meeting on Tuesday, March 24th.