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creative fortune

I’ve only lived in Santa Cruz for 2 ½ years, but I find myself already taking for granted just how special our arts community is. I’m grateful every day, to be sure, that I get to work here and live here and know the incredible creative people I know; but I think it would be all too easy to forget just how lucky I am.

Last week, I spent 24 hours in San Diego, on the invitation of April Game at Artpulse, where she and her team are working to create an arts council for the county of San Diego. It’s hard to believe that one doesn’t already exist there. The arts commission that serves the city of San Diego has long been robust, but the other 17 cities and large unincorporated areas have no umbrella agency, no arts infrastructure, no public funding streams, and no real way to connect on a larger level.

Here’s the amazing thing: the Artpulse team has been working on this for over a year, and what they are trying to do is get the County Board of Supervisors to simply approve the creation of the Council – with no funding stream attached. It won’t cost the county a dime, and yet, there has to be a tremendous movement simply to get a stamp of approval.

This is the second time I’ve traveled to San Diego to speak at a community forum about the structure and many benefits of a local arts council. At the forums, we encourage all attendees to speak up about their struggles, their needs, and what they think an arts council could accomplish for the county. Both times, I heard stories of isolation, frustration, and competition. Artists don’t know how to find each other, or how to find patrons. Arts organizations are competing and often won’t agree to speak with each other, let alone find power in collaborations. It all sounds very lonely.

And yet, in San Diego, there are thousands of artists, and hundreds of arts organizations, many of which are doing great work and which are seeking a way to get connected and thrive. And that is where an arts council can make all of the difference.

I had the great fortune of being able to share Santa Cruz’s successes: that the Cultural Council was formed by the cities and county, and that all jurisdictions have funded our Grant Program for 33 years. We bring the arts to thousands of children and have educated whole generations of creative people. We get inspired every other month at Cultural Council Associates meetings, where fifty-plus arts organizations share their great work and find ways to collaborate and support each other. Our Open Studios program is a national model that supports the livelihood of hundreds of artists while connecting tens of thousands of community members to the creative process AND their neighbors. And we have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes, make corrections, and strengthen our impact in the community.

San Diego deserves this. All counties deserve this, particularly in California where we are supposedly known for our creativity and innovations – even though we are dead last in the nation for per capita arts spending (now that Kansas has wisely re-funded their Arts Council – or are we now neck-in-neck for last place? Hard to say.) I don’t know if my contributions to these forums will help power this movement; and I also think that it is the duty of public entities to designate funding for the arts, so I wish there was a way to attach some kind of support to this request. Regardless, the artists and arts organizations in that community deserve a strong arts council, one that can serve them, advocate for them, and connect them.

In the meantime, I will count my blessings here in beautiful Santa Cruz; I’ll be grateful that our challenges aren’t quite so dire; and I’ll find ways to make sure the Cultural Council is of even more service to the artists and organizations which depend on us.

Don’t Tumble From Your Dream

“When words are scarce they are seldom spent in vain.” – William Shakespeare

All this month, I have had the pleasure of doing an old-school road show with David Swanger, the new 2012-13 Santa Cruz County Poet Laureate. It’s National Poetry Month, so he and I have been hitting all of the City Councils and the Board of Supervisors to celebrate; we also were at Kuumbwa Jazz a couple of nights ago, with previous Poet Laureate Gary Young, for a dual (duel?) reading. David’s tour of the county runs through the end of the month, including a Community Reading with San Lorenzo Valley Poetry at the Felton Community Hall. I can’t imagine a better way to spread the good word about poetry.

National Poetry Month was first introduced by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. The goal is simply to celebrate poetry, but it has inspired great things: a Langston Hughes postage stamp; a celebratory illumination of the Empire State Building; and readings at the White House. Here in Santa Cruz, every jurisdiction has issued a proclamation about Poetry Month, and every City Council Member and Supervisor is being treated to a lively poetry reading.

David is a brilliant reader. His poems are accessible and evocative, thought-provoking and nostalgic. I’ve introduced him at each meeting, and then sat back to let his words wash over the room. Everyone is attentive as he reads from his most recent book of poetry, “Wayne’s College of Beauty”. But then he tells the council members that he’s written a poem just for them. David said he usually isn’t inspired to write for an event, but somehow, this time, the muse struck, and he actually wrote a poem about the City Council. I love the moment when he announces this poem. Every single elected official sits a little straighter in their seats; the audience stops shifting to listen:

                                           City Council

How can we talk politics

when the air shimmers with trills;

when blossoms dreamily open;

when mothers and fathers apply

sunscreen to their babies;

when lovers levitate

like mist over the river.


By City Hall

ducks rummage the river’s eddies,

by the river, willows bow to the breeze;

by the river mothers and fathers teach

their children about grass;

by the river, lovers hold tight to each other

so they won’t tumble from their dream.


In City Hall, the City Council is

mindful of the river’s swirl and calm,

its blossoms and birdsong, families and lovers.

But the mayor and the council stay at their desks.


The river depends on them.


–David Swanger

These few words arrest the council members like nothing I’ve seen. It’s the magic of poetry, the beauty of the art form. Poetry makes people listen, and think. And sometimes see themselves reflected in the words. It’s a helpful reminder for the council members of just how powerful the arts can be. The next time I’m in front of these folks, the situation will be much different: I’ll be advocating for their financial support, so the Cultural Council can in turn fund artists and arts organizations across the county. But this time, we are all there for the pure pleasure of words perfectly strung together.

Listening to the poem, I am a mother applying sunscreen to my child; a lover holding tight to my husband; and I can see the wind blowing the blossoms and hear the trickle of the river. I wonder what the poem evoked for each council member, and if, at the end, they were even more inspired to stay at their desks – or if they daydreamed, even briefly, of just lying on the grass next to the river.

cultural capital

“A strong balance sheet means artistic freedom.”

I loathe the romanticized “starving artist” concept. There, I’ve said it.  It doesn’t serve the artist, nor the people or organizations that support the artist as funders or audience members. And I’ve long been frustrated by the idea that nonprofits should barely break even, or constantly struggle, to be deemed worthy of foundation or individual donor support.

To that end, I am extremely gratified by a movement afoot in the arts funding field.

Last Thursday, I spent the day at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation at a meeting called by Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA). The workshop presented was called Conversations on Capitalization and Community, and was led by folks from the Nonprofit Finance Fund and TDC. It was an outgrowth from GIA’s National Capitalization Project, and it stirred up a great deal of spirited conversation and perhaps, even, new ways to approach grantmaking for arts funders in this greater region.

Arts organizations, on the whole, are poorly capitalized. This fact was the driving force that led GIA to launch the National Capitalization Project. What this means, in layman’s terms, is that arts organizations barely have the revenue they need to meet day-to-day operational needs, let alone the capital required to innovate, to take creative risks, to explore new programming, or to weather downturns in the economic climate. At its best, this means that arts organizations are spending valuable time focusing on the bottom line rather than the mission; at worst, it means arts organizations are in constant jeopardy of shutting down.

A couple of years ago, the Cultural Council was denied a certain grant because we had generated a surplus the year before. Why on earth would a funder penalize an organization for being fiscally healthy? It boggles the mind.

What we are learning through the Capitalization Project is that both arts organizations and arts funders need to change the way they think about capitalization. Arts organizations need to consider how they can build reserves – even if very slowly – and arts funders need to think about how they can support their grantees to do so.

Being that the Cultural Council is both a grant recipient AND a funder, we are in a unique position to consider both sides of the coin. How can we continue to build our reserves, and strategically designate funding so we can respond to both internal and external opportunities? And how can we use our comparatively small re-granting budget to help local arts organizations properly capitalize?

Here are some of the recommendations I heard on Thursday:

–          Seed reserve funds of grantees

–          Fund at higher amounts than requested

–          Provide general operating support as often as possible

–          Award operating funding in project grants

–          Never penalize an organization for having a surplus; instead, encourage and reward surpluses

–          Consider matching dollar-for-dollar funds raised for reserve accounts

–          Fund projects 100%, including operating costs, or not at all

After hearing these recommendations, I said to the group, “I just don’t know how we can do some of this, considering how small our budget is.” One of my colleagues, who staffs a program at a major Bay Area funder, countered by saying “All of our budgets feel small, when we consider the need.” Fair point.

If I could champion just one of these recommendations, it would be the idea of awarding healthy operating funding in project grants. I wish we could get rid of the radical notion that it takes people, time, and sometimes even office supplies to run great programs. I’m not sure where the concept started that a strong percentage of overhead means a less compelling program. All great programs have one thing in common: great relationships. And great relationships require great people and a strong time commitment. Many funders want to see only 5-10% of operating costs in grant proposals. Few programs have such a small impact on an organization. And those additional funds have to come from somewhere.

All of the recommendations are worthy of consideration, however. The most difficult element of this, however, is that if most of the recommendations are followed, it likely means that fewer organizations will receive support. If projects are funded at 100%, if awards are higher than requested, if additional operating funding is granted, then the pool of funds gets eaten up much more quickly.

In Santa Cruz, we have thousands of artists and dozens of worthy arts organizations. We are also a community that actively supports one another, and celebrates each other’s successes. As one of the only sources of grant funding in town, how do we both support the breadth of the sector, while helping our grantees properly capitalize? I don’t have the answer, but I’m both nervous and excited about asking the question.

The sun is up, the sky is blue

All too often, “the arts” are seen as high-falutin’, inaccessible, elitist pastimes that evoke white-columned buildings housing ancient, pained-looking portraits of the long-dead or performances that can only be properly enjoyed while wearing a corset and sitting in an uncomfortable chair for three hours. And yes. Some of the arts do call these things to mind. But to equate the arts with these images is like saying that everyone who lives in Santa Cruz surfs. The fact is, most of us who live here don’t surf, and many of us have never ventured into the ocean. (It’s too cold.)

The arts are similarly unfairly branded. The arts are not just Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Mozart’s Don Giovanni. (Although I happen to be a fan of both.) But when I ask people – which I do on a regular basis – if they are involved in the arts, they usually say some combination of, “oh, not at all/I’ve got no talent/I only sing in the shower/I’ve never really been into art/I can’t even draw stick figures”. But when I press them, it turns out that they played the bass drum in their high school marching band, or they volunteer with their eight-year-old in after-school art classes, or they take dance classes once a week, or their college-bound kid is majoring in design or communications, or… the list goes on.

The arts, it turns out, are everywhere. And they are for everyone. From the making of sugar skulls for Dia de los Muertos, to dancing in your kitchen with your iPod, to practicing calligraphy, to singing your child to sleep – these are the arts that matter, just as much as the masterpieces of old.

Jody Snyder, Noel Littlejohn, and friends getting their grove on at Primavera




Sunday night, the Cultural Council hosted our annual fundraiser, Primavera! It was a 60’s-themed event, and featured the White Album Ensemble playing an absolutely incredible set of the Beatles’ famed record.



CC staff members Sonia Deetz and Nabil Ghachem

(all photos courtesy of Sarah Blade)



It was a high-ticket event, attended by many of our major donors, but dozens of volunteers also got to enjoy the fun, as did the entire Cultural Council staff.



Bill Gielow, Board Member Mark Sachau, Karen Guest, Tim Guest





And the arts were, indeed, everywhere. The creativity of the costumes alone was worthy of a runway show.




We have Ann Ostermann, CC's Open Studios and Events Manager, to thank for Primavera, which was graced by five of the seven deadly sins



Willie Nelson, Jackie Onassis, and John Lennon made appearances, as did Go-Go dancers and hippies of every flavor.






longtime CC supporters and SPECTRA founders Sue Struck, Nancy Sharrod, and Barbara Schatan

We raised critical funds for our arts and arts education programming, which was wonderful. But the most gratifying moment of the evening for me was when the band hit the stage, and the place erupted in dance. Board members, staff members, community members, and volunteers of all ages, all dancing with utter abandon, sheer joy on their faces, many of them singing along to even the most obscure Beatles songs.


There is energy created when art happens that is unlike any other power. The arts can be the great equalizer that allows for connections that are otherwise difficult to navigate. But once you’ve shared a common creative experience – be it a movie, a play, a festival, a song – with someone else, you both have chipped away some of the emotional armor we all wear just to get through the day. And if you are brave enough, you may have the opportunity to create an actual relationship.

Once you’ve shared a dance floor with a board member or a donor or a colleague, once you’ve seen them shake their booty and flail their arms in the air and sing with their whole bodies, and they’ve seen you do the same, I daresay you can never go back to a nodding acquaintance.

Jon Vaden, yours truly, Sarah Turpin, and Michael Turpin


I cut my creative teeth as a singer, actor, and writer. Those years of living and working as an artist gave new meaning to the phrase “timing is everything”: the timing of my lines in a play, to juggling time commitments to multiple jobs, to the timing of the next paycheck. My timing for jumping into the administrative side of the arts was particularly precarious.

I have been working as an arts administrator in California for eight years. That means I came on the scene just after the California Arts Council got 94% of their budget gutted, and just shy of a decade after the deep cuts to the NEA. 2008 brought the Great Recession, and local government revenues are still trending down – which of course means cuts to the arts.

The only economic climate I’ve known is one of scarcity. I suppose that is why I don’t feel panicked every year when it is time to figure out next year’s budget. Many folks continue to talk about how to “do more with less”. That’s not terribly interesting to me. I like talking about how we can do great things with what resources we have. I’m thrilled that the Cultural Council took a risk last year in expanding its arts education programming by acquiring Mariposa’s Art, an after-school art and leadership program, even though expansion in these times is a risky venture. We also made a strategic decision to invest in our marketing and communications, with the end goal of being able to reach and serve more of the Santa Cruz community. The Cultural Council is growing when so much around us is shrinking.

Is this wise? During a crisis, the temptation is to lift the portcullis, batten down the hatches, and weather the storm. But that just shuts out all of the villagers, and this isn’t a community that will be shut out. Nor should it. I believe this is a time to be brave, to recognize opportunity, and to make excellent decisions about how to be of great service, and how to make an impact.

The loss of Redevelopment agencies across the state is going to have a terrible impact on the arts. There are varying opinions on the efficacy of redevelopment, but there is no question that RDA funds elevated the beauty and usefulness of creative spaces throughout California , and built community and stimulated the economy along the way. Santa Cruz is no exception. Now that Redevelopment has gone away, what choices will we make as a community to continue what was working so well?

One thing is certain: once we gut arts budgets, they do not come back. In 1992, the NEA’s budget was $176 million. By 1996, it was $99 million. In 2010, it was $167.5 million. Adjusted for inflation, if the NEA’s budget had simply remained constant since 1992, the 2010 budget would be $272 million. I may not see that number in my lifetime. As it is, on a federal level, we are only funding the arts at 54 cents per capita. For an industry that has such a brilliant return on investment – up to $54 dollars for every dollar invested – this is a foolish choice.

I believe we, as a community, can do better. We may never fund the arts at San Francisco or Santa Fe levels, but as the 5th most artistic city in America, we have a tremendous opportunity to ensure our creative and economic health for decades to come – if we are brave, and if we invest wisely. I know that it’s a difficult time, and that the needs are great. But it is NOT the time to shy away from supporting the arts. To do so is the greater risk, to our economy, and to the soul of our community.