Who Pays Piper?


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Anyone embarking on an artistic career knows three things: Art is long, life is short, and art costs money.

The last is what stops most people. Where will the money come from? Money to live on, money for materials, money to buy time until success looks possible.

“When I came here as head of the new Commission for Arts and Culture,” says Victoria Hamilton, “[then–city manager] Jack McGrory took me to my first city council meeting. I sat in the front row and watched people from different arts groups say why they were better than one another and should receive more funding. It was embarrassing. I understood then what I had to do.”

That was 11 years ago. Money for the arts came from a variety of sources, with no system for determining who deserved what. It was Hamilton’s job to work out an application system with formula funding and review criteria. Now the commission distributes millions of dollars a year to more than 90 organizations, plus festivals and neighborhood projects. Next year, it will distribute $8 million, approximately 1 percent of the city’s transient occupancy tax (TOT)—money collected from tourists. The sum is four times what it was when the commission began.

About half a million each goes to our city’s largest cultural groups—the San Diego Opera, the Old Globe Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse—and slightly lesser sums to the San Diego Museum of Art, Museum of Natural History, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and Museum of Contemporary Art. At the tail end of the ’99 list are smaller organizations, at $5,000 to $6,000—the San Diego Women’s Chorus, the Asian Story Theater. In between are groups like the Fritz Theater and the Gay Men’s Chorus, each at about $15,000; the San Diego Ballet, $40,000; Mainly Mozart, $65,000. The Museum of Photographic Arts gets $130,000; the Mingei, $160,000.

How is this determined?

“By a strict formula,” says Hamilton. “Among other things, their operating income and their ability to raise money on their own. A member of the commission visits each organization to observe their performance.”

Have there ever been complaints from the public?

“Yes, once, for nudity,” says Hamilton.

Our ears perk up. Only once? We assume it was one of the smaller, more risque theaters.

“No, it was the La Jolla Playhouse. For an American classic.” (It was The Hairy Ape by Eugene O’Neill.)

And what did the Playhouse do about it?

“They decided to advertise differently,” Hamilton says, “so people would know what they were getting into.”

In other words, the commission doesn’t act as censor. The performance stayed the same.

This is not to say there haven’t been problems. Eyebrows were raised at the travel expenditures of San Diego Museum of Art director Stephen Brezzo, and the San Diego Symphony attracted negative attention when it threatened bankruptcy.

Why didn’t the commission help the symphony?

“We did,” says Hamilton. “When we saw what was happening, we warned them it couldn’t go on. But we couldn’t take from the other arts to save the symphony.”

Joe Ross, director of public relations for the commission, says the group is the largest single funding source for the majority of arts organizations in San Diego. It’s made up of nine paid staffers and 15 volunteer commissioners, the latter appointed by the mayor. The California Arts Council contributes state money, but only a dozen or so organizations get National Endowment for the Arts money, which has been drying up in the last few years.

The economic impact of art on the community is substantial: 1998 figures put employment at 3,741 part-timers and 1,000 full-timers. The opera alone employs 40 full-time staff. Cultural tourism, as it’s called, brought $248 million to San Diego this past year, so it’s not only a feel-good industry.

The commission is high on this kind of tourism. “The cultural tourist wants to experience all those things that define a particular locality—in other words, experiencing a way of life,” says Hamilton. “Like most tourists, their first visit can be spent at Sea World and the zoo. After that, the cultural tourist wants to visit historic sites, festivals, museums, ethnic neighborhoods, architectural treasures.”

Of which we have plenty. Two festivals (Adams Avenue and Old Town’s Cinco de Mayo) claim much attention at the commission; also street fairs (Pacific Beach, El Cajon, City Heights) and concerts (jazz and blues). The commission finds success stories everywhere.

“The Fern Street Circus wasn’t in existence before it first got funding from us,” says Hamilton.

Rick Prickett, director of cultural tourism for the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau, talks about the intangibles, the things that make a visitor feel grounded in the city—that make the tourist want to come back. He wants to turn the tourist into a cultural tourist, someone who stays longer than just the two-day convention he or she is attending, who includes theater and museums on an itinerary, who adds a day or two at each end to a convention hotel stay.

ConVis puts out a themed inventory of things to do according to special interests, concentrating on different communities—the African-American community, the Jewish, Latino, Asian, gay and lesbian. This information is available on a Web site (californiasedge.com), with links to each of these special interests. Obviously, this is a great resource for locals, too, who have friends in town but sometimes don’t know what’s happening in their own backyard.

Theater is a major component in drawing visitors to San Diego, says Prickett. People come here from Los Angeles to see shows they think will go to Broadway. They visit the touring shows at the Civic Theatre (Phantom in October, for instance) and the original shows at the Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse.

But they also come for outstanding museum exhibits, like “Jurassic Park” at the Natural History Museum (sets and props due next summer from the second movie) and for “The Nature of Diamonds” show at the same museum. They come for the big festivals; the largest in San Diego is the Gay & Lesbian Pride Festival, but there is also Street Scene and the Sony ArtWalk.

“Nobody can see everything at once,” says Prickett. “But we give them an inventory of arts and culture in San Diego and make them want to come back.”

His biggest complaint is that often “the business community doesn’t recognize art” as an important factor. “There are few headquarters foundations here in San Diego to make big contributions,” Prickett comments.

An example: A group wants to bring a marble-sculpture event from Italy to San Diego—huge blocks of marble, with sculptors from all over the world to work in the public’s view. But they can find no businesses that will support the costs. The Port District has given them space on the B Street Pier, but there are few sources in San Diego for start-up art projects. The Commission for Arts and Culture requires a three-year track record for their candidates. This makes it difficult for people with new ideas.

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