Courtesy of the Sacramento Kings, a rendering of Jeff Koons’ $8 million sculpture.
When it comes to screwing the arts, is the city of Sacramento failing its minority residents or economically disadvantaged ones?
That question hung at the center of a debate between elected officials Tuesday night, which ended with the Sacramento City Council voting 7-0 in favor of a $500,000 funding plan for multicultural arts.
Funding for small-budget cultural arts groups—or the lack thereof—has been a contentious issue for years in the city, but found renewed traction in February, when the council OK’d an $8 million commission to Jeffrey Koons. The famous New York artist’s plan to erect a colorfully abstract sculpture in front of the new downtown arena divided residents and prompted local artists to once again ask why they get no benefactory love in the 916.
Around the same time as the Koons controversy, the council decided to finally carve out a thin slice of support for small arts groups that largely serve diverse, ethnic populations. The city pieced together $500,000 from the sale of property at the southwest corner of Fair Oaks Boulevard and Howe Avenue, and charged its Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission with writing the rules on how to spread this relatively modest sum to arts organizations it has historically ignored.
On July 21, SMAC executive director Shelly Willis briefed council members on the Cultural Equity Grant Program. Similar to other programs around the country, Willis said it would allow SMAC to award small grants of up to $20,000 to nonprofit arts groups, with the hopes of making the onetime monies last for three years.
There are two funding categories. Arts organizations that mostly serve or reside within the city of Sacramento can apply for capacity grants to build up their administrative, planning and audience infrastructures. There is also a project-support category, where the grant money goes toward realizing a specific art project.
In each case, applicants have to manage annual budgets of $500,000 or less. But it was the latter category that sparked disagreement behind the dais.
As originally written, the project-support guidelines say the grant money can only go to arts groups that propose projects in one of the city’s designated low-to-moderate income areas, though Willis said the council can add additional priority areas.
Councilwoman Angelique Ashby expressed dismay at the economic restrictions, as they would prevent arts groups from realizing projects in her Natomas-anchored district—the most diverse in the city. “I just don’t think arts is something that should be exclusive in any way,” she said. “And it’s hard for me to vote for something that leaves my entire district out.”
This prompted Councilman Steve Hansen to suggest a friendly amendment. Saying it was unwise to conflate poverty with cultural arts, he recommended marrying the criteria for who could apply to individuals and groups covered by the city’s anti-discrimination policies.
But that compelled council members Eric Guerra and Larry Carr to speak up for their disadvantaged districts, which often pull the short end of the stick when municipal resources are being parceled out.
Together, the two men represent some of the most neglected neighborhoods in the city, including Oak Park, Meadow View and Valley Hi. Carr, in particular, expressed frustration.
“It’s not a racial thing. It’s an economic deal. Very wealthy black people [and Latinos] can go to the Crocker Art Museum,” said Carr. “But those in neighborhoods where the income level is $40,000 a year for a family of four, they can’t make it there. If they’re going to have access to art, the art has to come to them.”
Following up on his own motion, Councilman Jay Schenirer suggested the amendment that won the day. Instead of geographic or income restrictions, he recommended relaxing the guidelines to allow all arts groups with annual budgets of $500,000 or less to apply for the money and letting SMAC decide who fits the criteria. He also asked that SMAC return with annual reports explaining who receives funding, “and then we can see.”
Other eligibility restrictions that decide who can apply and for how much didn’t get much play.
For instance, SMAC has decided it will award up to 20 percent of an arts organization’s budget. Willis said many of the low-budget organizations her commission looked at managed annual budgets of around $100,000, placing them in line for grants of up to roughly $20,000.
But volunteer-run groups with virtually no budgets won’t be able to get much, if anything at all. “We can’t give a grant to an organization … that has no operating budget,” Willis said.
Another caveat is that the money can only be awarded to established nonprofits under the current rules. So, if there’s a group of local artists that want to apply for money for a specific project, they would need a nonprofit to act as a fiscal sponsor on their behalf, Willis explained.
On the other hand, Willis said she and her SMAC colleagues tried to simplify the application process so it’s less intimidating to those who don’t traffic in grant applications.
Longtime cultural arts champions praised the cultural equity grant.
George Raya of the rechristened Latino Center for Arts and Culture, and a frequent critic of the monochromatic arts spending in Sacramento, hailed the fund as “a game-changer for small arts organizations of Sacramento.”
In December 2013, Raya was part of a group called Create Equity that confronted the council about inequitable public funding for the arts. “You’ve heard us,” he said. “It’s taken a little more than 18 months … but now we have the policies.”
Still, there remained a gulf between the millions given to one out-of-state artist versus the thousands available to a local community of creativity and color.
“It’s a relatively small amount of money,” acknowledged Schenirer, who hoped to extend the life of the program by restoring some of the hotel tax revenue that SMAC used to receive or through monies yet to be named. “It’s an important statement for the city.”
But what’s known as the transient occupancy tax is already largely spoken for by bonds for the arena and convention center.