SF arts funding prioritizes symphony, other stuff white people like

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Michael Tilson Thomas directs the San Francisco Symphony. Are arts grants skewed towards art white people favor, like orchestras?
Courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

Disadvantaged artists might be getting the short end of the paintbrush in favor of the city’s more affluent art community in Mayor Ed Lee’s proposed 2014-16 city budget.

That’s what a seemingly endless line of advocates expressed in a hearing in front of the San Francisco Budget and Finance Committee Friday [6/20] when given the opportunity to suggest ways to better apportion funding in the budget. According to a recent report from the Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office, the dissenters might be onto something.

The report details the allocation of funding from Grants for the Arts, revealing that 76 percent of GFTA’s grant money will go to art organizations with primarily white audiences. This figure is right in line with the funding priorities from 1961, when the city’s population was 82 percent white.

Today, people of color make up 58 percent of the city’s population, while the white population has been nearly cut in half over the course of the five decades since 1961. But that hasn’t stopped GFTA from devoting more than three-quarters of its funds for art organizations whose audiences are predominantly white, the report found.

GFTA’s self-proclaimed goal is to “promote and support the widest possible variety of arts and culture activities in the City,” although it’s hard to imagine it had that in mind when devising the budget plan for the upcoming fiscal year.

This isn’t the first time GFTA has snubbed underprivileged artists. According to the Budget Analyst’s report, GFTA actually reduced its percentages of funding to arts organizations of color from 2006-07 to 2012-13, and the agency’s funding for those organizations has not improved over the last 25 years, despite the city’s radically shifting demographics and the lip service regularly given to diversity at City Hall. GFTA has no plans to improve its grant money allocation, according to the report. Officials at the agency declined to comment when contacted for this story.

arts grants

When the Budget and Finance Committee heard public comment today about the mayor’s proposed budget, a great deal of the discussion centered on cultural equity and providing increased funding for disadvantaged citizens in the arts.

Numerous speakers cited the city’s changing demographics and the reality that the city isn’t made up of an enormous majority of white residents anymore, calling for more art funding for people of color, despite the budget’s lopsided allocation of funds to the white demographic.

In particular, the budget proposal allocates 19 percent of the 2014-15 budget to the San Francisco Symphony, which was enough for one speaker to state that “a lion’s share is going to the traditional organizations.” The message to the committee, simply put, was to “consider how you invest the money you’re spending,” as another speaker said, and that “public funding for the arts is not supposed to disempower by taking away the voice of the underrepresented.”

Allocating more funding for the Cultural Equity Grants was an oft-mentioned method for better supporting disadvantaged artists, with the project-based grant system receiving 25 percent of the commission’s budget in the 2014-15 fiscal year. The number of grants awarded each year has remained relatively stagnant in recent years, with 94 grants awarded in 2012-13, a projected 100 to be given out in 2013-14, and a target of 100 in both 2014-15 and 2015-16.

The number of street artists supporting themselves by selling their work isn’t progressing much either. The city issued 176 new licenses for such artists in 2012-13, but is projected to dole out only 122 in the current fiscal year. The new proposal targets similar numbers to those from 2012-13 (179 and 183 licenses in 2014-15 and 2015-16, respectively), further affirmation of the sluggish advancement of the mission to ensure that all cultures of the city are represented.

But disadvantaged residents in the arts aren’t the only ones who stand to be affected by the proposed budget, a fact that wasn’t lost on many concerned advocates. Lee calls for a budget of $13.9 million for the Arts Commission in 2014-15, a relatively minor 2 percent decrease from the 2013-14 budget of $14.2 million. The real drop-off occurs in 2015-16, however, when the Arts Commission budget decreases by a full 8.4 percent from the previous fiscal year. The Mayor’s Office declined to respond when contacted for this story.

Needless to say, members of the art community as a whole weren’t thrilled about Lee’s sharply declining emphasis on the arts, and they voiced their concern toward the Committee on Friday. The city’s lack of aid for the general art community, in addition to simply underprivileged artists, had many speakers understandably up in arms.

Below we've embedded Harvey Rose's report on skewed arts grants funding.

"Arts inequity": San Francisco Budget and Legislative Analyst Report by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

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