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Commission for Arts and Culture Needs a Radical Overhaul

Earlier this year, hundreds of artists, employees of cultural nonprofits, advocates and patrons came together to ask Mayor Kevin Faulconer not to make substantial cuts to the Commission for Arts and Culture budget.

Voice of San Diego CommentaryThe commission funds more than 100 local arts and culture organizations, and in turn, those nonprofits provide essential arts programs while also creating jobs, economic impact and boosting the quality of life for San Diego residents.

For some organizations, their contract with the city represents a smaller portion of a much larger budget, while others are more dependent on the annual contracts.

The mayor’s proposed cuts motivated me to look more closely and critically at how the city funds arts and culture organizations. Even though the public outcry persuaded Faulconer to reduce cuts to the arts budget this year, the city is in a deficit and the issue will likely come up again next year.

The Commission for Arts and Culture is failing the local arts groups it’s supposed to be helping in two major ways – it is not doing enough to successfully advocate the value of nonprofits’ work to the mayor, our City Council members and the city’s residents, and its funding system is outdated and unfair.

The commission simply must do a better job of communicating the economic and intrinsic value of a healthy and vibrant arts and culture sector in San Diego.

Last week, the commission posted two new studies, one about the economic impact of arts organizations in San Diego, and another looking specifically at the economic impact of Balboa Park. The commission hosted a few public events and sent out a press release, but I highly doubt the message will get out beyond the echo chamber of people who already appreciate and value the arts. The commission should be promoting and boosting these studies much more. I want to see these reports being talked about on every local television station.

When our city arts leaders don’t constantly talk about the value of the arts, they paint a target on the backs of local arts organizations, which will suffer the most from future budget cuts.

Another thing that makes arts funding a target for future cuts is the inequitable way funding is distributed to local cultural nonprofits.

After each arts nonprofit that applies for funding is vetted through a public panel review, rankings based on programmatic quality, impact and organizational sustainability are awarded to each applicant, then contract amounts are determined.

The higher the rank, the more money an organization can get, but the amount each is awarded is based on the total annual operating budget of each org. So the bigger an annual budget, the more money the groups can get from the city.

That means that that the system is skewed toward big organizations with larger budgets. Even smaller organizations that achieve the highest possible rankings are getting significantly less city funding than bigger organization’s with lower rankings.

As the funding system stands, larger organizations consistently receive contracts upwards of $500,000 or more annually, and small organizations with smaller budgets get as little as $5,000 a year.

It’s no wonder the mayor initially considered major cuts to arts funding when he saw that multimillion-dollar budgeted organizations are receiving such a huge piece of the arts-funding pie. Many of the arts organizations getting the largest chunks of change are already housed in Balboa Park, where they enjoy city-subsidized rents and other perks paid for by the city.

The current funding system has helped older, larger arts nonprofits continue to grow while grassroots organizations are left struggling.

The city changed the process for arts funding this year, but the changes are not nearly enough. The Commission for Arts and Culture needs to do a radical overhaul of its funding system that will allow small organizations to grow and thrive. It can start by instituting funding caps to ensure that the city funds available are distributed more equitably among all local nonprofits. No one organization should be getting hundreds of thousands of dollars – that money should instead be spread out across the highest ranking arts groups, no matter their size. Smaller organizations could use the funding for professional development that would help grow their organizations.

The commission should also promote the fact that arts entrepreneurs – like art galleries and other businesses adding to our cultural landscape without official nonprofit status – are able to participate in the city funding programs via fiscal sponsorships – finding a nonprofit to sponsor them and filter the funding through them. That might help with the problem of the same old established nonprofits benefiting so hugely every year.

San Diego’s Commission for Arts and Culture funding system has not evolved as progressively as similar arts commissions elsewhere in the country. This unfortunate reality means we’re stuck with the status-quo, wherein the wealthier organizations’ wealth remains and the poorer organizations’ potential for growth is stymied. Our commission’s archaic funding formula keeps the arts and culture scene in San Diego stagnant.

San Diego is one of the most diverse, fastest growing cities in America. Big changes could produce big, exciting results for both our economy and quality of life.

Peter Kalivas is the executive and artistic director of The PGK Dance Project. Kalivas’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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