Category Archives: Return on Investment

Time to Turn the Tide

“Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.–Lyndon Johnson, on signing into existence the National Endowment on the Arts

For ten years, the California Arts Council was 50th out of 50 states in per-capita arts funding. What does that mean? It means that, for every resident, California invested less money in the arts than any other state. Less than, say, Mississippi. Or Wyoming. Or Rhode Island. You get the picture. In the last couple of years, we’ve crept ahead of Kansas and Georgia, making us 48th out of 50. We won this “race to the bottom” in 2003 when the California Arts Council’s budget was gutted by 94%.

Most of us who work in the arts here are well aware of this groan-inducing, eye-rolling fact, and even if you didn’t know it, you’ve felt the effects. If you live in a small, rural area, it’s likely that your local Arts Council is run by volunteers or woefully underpaid staff, which means they have limited capacity to serve their greater communities. (Actually, this is true in some large metropolitan areas as well.) No matter where you live, your schools likely have fewer arts programs than during the California Arts Council’s (comparative) heyday.

When the CAC budget was slashed, it left the field with a greatly diminished state arts agency, which had at one time provided significant operational and programmatic support. Local arts agencies were forced to be scrappy, do more with much, much less – or, in some unfortunate cases, fold.

But let’s go on an even more macro level, and look at the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA’s funding peaked in 1992 with a budget of $176 million. The “culture wars” (i.e. the controversy over Robert Mapplethorpe and others) resulted in massive cutbacks in 1996 when the NEA budget was itself gutted to $99 million. Since then, the budget has been taking two steps forward, two steps back. In 2013, the NEA was allocated $138 million. To put that into perspective, consider the following graph:

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The graph is a bit old (and hard to read), but the information, sadly, isn’t. (You can see it better here.) Yep, out of the thirteen major countries studied, the US was 13th. We won the race to the bottom again!

Why does this matter, in my wee town of Santa Cruz? Because leadership matters, and like it or not, top-down leadership often has the most significant impact. We grassroots folks can show how we are inspiring children, building bridges, creating jobs, beautifying the world, and changing lives, but if the top leaders and legislators in this country don’t recognize the value of what we do, we’re blowing dandelions in a wind tunnel.

The California Arts Council, Californians for the Arts, and local arts agencies from across this state are working to steer our Golden State ship in a new direction.

I spent Wednesday in Sacramento with these good people where we attended a legislative hearing held by the Joint Committee on the Arts. One of the purposes of this hearing was to introduce and discuss the 2013 Otis Report on the Creative Economy in California. (And for those of you not wanting to wade through 261 pages, here’s a PDF with the salient points.)

The short version is this: the creative industries in California account for 7.8% of the state’s GDP. They generated $273.5 billion in total output, and employed 1.4 million workers who paid nearly $13 billion in taxes that went into the state general fund and to local governments. Yep, we are talking billions.

And yet, our state’s investment in the arts totals about three cents per resident.

California is one of the most creative places in the world. This state is responsible for nurturing wildly innovative businesses and projects that have transformed the world. To not increase our investment in our creativity would be jeopardizing the competitiveness of our country as a whole. The Otis Report puts it this way:

“Since the US economy increasingly depends on the production of intangible goods, it is necessary to recognize that the production of ideas is an important form of investment.”

(Emphasis mine.) And how do we produce new ideas? We give children and adults the opportunity to express themselves, to learn how to think critically, to fail safely and try again, how to work in teams, how to innovate, how to invite inspiration. We do these things through the arts.

Consider this: creators and community members in California are already doing great things with very little support. Imagine a world where we invested in the creativity of our great thinkers, starting from the time they were children. Imagine what we could do, what problems we could solve, what connections we could create. Actually, I can’t imagine. Because the sky would be the limit.

So what are we doing about this? Here’s the big news: two legislators are proposing an increase to the California Arts Council’s budget. This increase is modest when compared to the billions pumped back into the economy by the arts sector. The current proposal would take the Arts Council’s budget from $5 million to $25 million annually. $25 million is equal to the agency’s 1983 budget, adjusted for inflation.

Senator Ted Lieu will shortly introduce this legislation. And Assemblymember Ian Calderon has already introduced a bill that would also increase the CAC’s budget. “We must fund arts programs that reflect the contributions they make to the people of California”, he said.

Sometimes Sacramento seems really far away from everywhere else. It’s easy to think that lawmakers and legislation have little to do with our everyday lives. But I promise you: these funds will make a difference to your children, and your community. With this support, organizations like mine will hire artists to come to your kid’s school. We will produce stronger programming for you to enjoy with your friends and family. We will help artists and designers innovate as they create the next big idea and perhaps one day employ you or your kids.

Art matters. Investing in the arts matters.

So what can you do? Call your State Senator and Assemblymember and ask them to support this legislation. Don’t know who your electeds are? Find out here. Encourage your local elected leaders to contact them as well. Buy an Arts License Plate. They are beautiful and will directly support creative programming. Check the Keep Arts in Schools Fund when you file your taxes, and make a contribution that way. Donate to your local arts council. Ask for arts in your kid’s school. Take your kids to the museum, or the theater, or the library.  Support the arts in whatever way inspires you.

Proud Sponsors

“All truths are easy once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.” – Galileo Galilei

“Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.” – Winston Churchill

I have a BFA in Musical Theater. It’s the kind of college degree that brings a smirk to many a face, as people assume I spent four years tap dancing and walking around in clown shoes. I did do both, at times, but I actually spent five years taking between 20-24 units a semester learning a deep curriculum in music, dance, and theater. Oh, and taking all of the “core” subjects required for a liberal arts college degree. Scoff if you will, but I learned how to put in the hours to get the job done, and my late-night cramming was often in the ballet studio as well as the library.

One of the most eye-opening courses I took was Directing 101. All actors need to try their hands as directors when learning the craft, and I found directing to be challenging on so many levels. Running a casting call, finding a set designer and light designer, working around numerous schedules, looking for both talent and “fit”, getting the group as a whole to deliver both professionally and artistically – it was tough work (and, years later, so very familiar).

The most enlightening element of the process was being on the other end during an audition. You quickly learn that the audition begins the moment the actor walks into the room – not the moment she begins her monologue or song. How she walks, how she interacts with the accompanist, how she introduces herself – all of it matters almost as much as her ability act or sing. Actually, the audition begins even before that – it begins when I read her resume. There I learn not just about her professional past, but how she presents herself, her writing ability, her professionalism, her artistry as expressed through simple things such as font, brevity, and design.

Being on both ends of the creative spectrum was helpful then, as it is now.

I’m back in a dual role, as the director of an arts council that is also a funder. The Arts Council is both a grantee and a grantor, at all times. We spend a great deal of time on fund development but even more time figuring out how to responsibly disperse much of those funds so they can have a profound impact on our community. I’m also aware that this dynamic may color some of my relationships with both those who fund us, and those we fund. I wish I could remove that weird power dynamic altogether, as it just feels like an impediment to real relationships with people I really enjoy. But it’s there, and all I can do is show up in an authentic way when I’m interacting with my friends and colleagues.

Sometimes, though, being in this position allows us to imagine, design, and implement a change that we think is really cool. We know what it is like to spend dozens of hours on grant applications that may or may not get funded, or may have a pathetically small return on investment. We know the frustration of wishing we could be working to meet our mission, rather than working to raise the funds we need to do our work.

To that end, the Arts Council has made some major changes to our grants program. We opened up the cycle so funding for arts projects is available year round; we simplified who is eligible for general support grants versus project grants; we reworked our grants panel so truly qualified folks in each discipline will be reviewing applications; we’re offering professional development grants to both artists and arts organizations; and we moved to a much better online system for our grantmaking. But the change I’m most excited about is our new Sponsor Grant category.

The Arts Council has been funding the arts in Santa Cruz since 1979. And there are organizations in this county that we’ve been funding for all of those 34 years, whose longevity rivals our own. There are other organizations that may not have been around as long, but which have consistently provided excellent programming for the community and maintained strong management practices.

Every year, these organizations jump through our grantmaking hoops to be considered for funding. Every year, we see their strong balance sheets, high-quality programing, dedicated and talented staff, and devoted audiences. And every year, we award them funds. Which begged the question: why are we making them jump through hoops?

Enter the Sponsor Grants. These grants are ongoing, annual funding for the strongest and most impactful arts organizations in the county, based on the following criteria:

–          Ten years of producing programming in Santa Cruz County

–          Been funded by the Arts Council for five consecutive years

–          Provide leadership in their art discipline and/or in the Santa Cruz community

–          Have strong and consistent management and board leadership

–          Have a stable or growing budget

–          Have stable or growing audiences

–          Significant cash reserves

These organizations do not have to submit a grant application; instead, Arts Council staff does a site visit with both board and staff members, and at the end of the fiscal year, the funded organization will send a basic report that speaks to the criteria above. Unless these organizations experience dramatic and negative changes, we will continue to fund them year after year. All of the hours that would have been spent on a grant application will now be spent meeting their mission and creating fantastic programming for this community. We, too will save time, not having to collect, read, and score those grant applications, so we too can spend more time focused on our mission. In return for this funding, the Arts Council is given a sponsorship package commensurate with any other donor of the same level. This way, we promote the Arts Council’s own work in the community, ultimately building our capacity to provide even greater support to the organizations we serve.

One particularly exciting element of this category is that it’s not just about budget size. Some of the organizations in the cohort are major institutions – the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, the Museum of Art & History – but others are much smaller, such as the Santa Cruz Mountains Art Center and Pajaro Valley Arts CouncilKuumbwa Jazz, the Santa Cruz County Symphony, and Tandy Beal round out the group, representing a broad range of artistic disciplines. These organizations also serve communities from the border region near Monterey to the far north county.

There are many other wonderful organizations in this community, of course, and some are close to qualifying for this grant. We hope to help elevate these organizations so they too can join the Sponsor category. Indeed, we are creating another new exciting grant category designed to help a cohort of organizations take the next step in their development. But that’s news for another day.

The Sponsor Grant category – and indeed, all of the major changes in the program – is the brainchild of our Grants & Technical Assistance Manager, Jim Brown. I can only take credit for being smart and lucky enough to talk him into joining our team just over a year ago. A former Executive Director of both the Diversity Center and 418 Project in Santa Cruz, with a background in in the tech world, Jim hadn’t had direct experience as a grants manager. But he did have experience as a grantseeker, and as a natural innovator and great thinker, he was able to completely re-think how we can make an impact with our funds. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Loss

“Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow.” – William Shakespeare

When I was a teenager, my brother Sean and I somehow ended up with two tenth-row center tickets to see Les Miserables on tour in Los Angeles. We didn’t know anything about the show, and we were teenagers after all, so before it started we were screwing around in our seats and feeling restless about what we wanted to be doing that night. At one point, I even turned to him and said, “Is this going to be funny?” And he considered the title and said, “I doubt it.” I then got an inspired idea. “Let’s go see the new Indiana Jones movie instead!” Sean was game, so we stood up to leave, right when the house lights went down. So we sat back in our seats… and two and a half hours later, stood up again, transformed.

We both have clear memories of that night, some twenty years ago, not just about what happened on stage, but what it felt like to be there, to be a part of that experience. It confirmed our career paths. A few years later I got a degree in Musical Theater and then spent many years performing. My brother Sean is one of the greatest actors I know, and his theater company, Gideon Productions, is a highly-acclaimed anchor in the indie New York theater scene.

I truly believe my life is different from having seen that show. I’d been performing since I was four, but somehow that night shook up and rewired my brain in such a way that doing anything else for the rest of my life no longer made sense. I belong in the arts world, and here I will stay. But it wasn’t about the art – it was about the story that unfolded in front of me through song, dance, sets, costumes, and music. The heartbreak, the devastation, the hopefulness, the love – all communicated to my crazy teenager brain in a way that little else could. And that is what art does. It leaves you changed.

I’ve had other moments like that night: seeing the Annie Leibovitz exhibit at the Legion of Honor. Seeing the Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibit at the Met. My own father conducting Night on Bald Mountain when I was four years old. Seeing The Secret Garden on Broadway. Seeing the Alvin Ailey Dance Company at the Napa Valley Opera House. Seeing Dave Brubeck perform with his sons just a couple of years before he died. The first time I got to sing my mother’s brilliant song “Away to America” to my baby.

But there have been so many things I’ve missed. I didn’t get to see the original cast of Rent on Broadway. I’ve missed my brother Sean’s last twenty or so shows in New York. I’ve missed dozens and dozens of local artistic opportunities because I have two tiny children and I rarely get to leave the house after 6 PM.

I am keenly aware that I’ve not just missed these shows and exhibitions; I’ve missed the opportunity to see them ever. Because no show is the same if it has a new cast. No symphony is the same when a different orchestra plays it. I can see other shows, other events, other exhibitions, but I feel an acute loss about that ones I’ve missed.

And last week, while I was on a trip through the Midwest to see family and go to a wedding, I heard unthinkable news: Shakespeare Santa Cruz was getting the axe. This incredible program, which for 32 years has been housed by UCSC and beloved by the community, was being discontinued as of the end of the year. I sat there in my hotel room, stunned with the news. There is a great deal about this decision that I don’t understand, and significant community concern about the way it was done. But one thing is universal, for those of us who know and love SSC: we are feeling tremendous loss.

Shakespeare Santa Cruz provided generations of Santa Cruzans (locals and visitors alike) the kind of transformational experiences that I had at Les Mis. Everyone I know has a SSC story, be it about the show itself, or being in the glen, under the stars, with a bottle of wine, or maybe a first date. The shows have been sometimes racy, sometimes classic, always high-quality. They have set the standard for Shakespeare companies across the country, and the Shakespeare program was a major conduit that connected this community with the University – a relationship that is often fragile.

We’re told that the program was cut because the financial model didn’t work, and hadn’t worked for a long time. That may be true. But this program was worth more than its balance sheet, for the tens of thousands of children who, through SSC, experienced the Bard for the first time, and the tens of thousands of adults who shared the experience of seeing great art in an otherworldly setting.

My life would have been different if I hadn’t seen Les Miserables when I was a teenager. Maybe not dramatically different, but different nonetheless. How many lives did Shakespeare Santa Cruz alter in its 32 years? And how many people will now be denied that experience? It’s impossible to quantify that loss. In the business world, people often talk about “opportunity cost” – what is the cost for the business to be doing a particular piece of work rather than other activities? In this case, the opportunity cost is particularly painful. Without Shakespeare Santa Cruz, we lose connection, inspiration, talent, excitement, and togetherness. You won’t find those on a balance sheet, because they are priceless.