With the escalation of pressing environmental crises, “sustainability” seems to be the buzzword on everyone’s lips. The term is also being used in reference to securing a sound financial future for the arts.

During the last 40 years, a significant shift in how the arts are viewed and supported has occurred. In 1966, when nearly $3 million was allocated to establish the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the arts were appreciated and recognized nationally for their intrinsic value. In 1975, then-governor Jerry Brown authorized the reorganization of the California Arts Commission as the California Arts Council (CAC). At the regional level, the County Arts Commission was established in 1977, and the County Board of Supervisors passed A Public Percent for Art Ordinance in 1979.

Since the late ’90s, however, declining federal and state funding for the arts and radical demographic shifts have brought the issue of arts sustainability to the forefront. In 2003, funding for the CAC from California’s General Fund decreased by 94 percent from $18 million to $1 million, resulting in cuts to almost all grants programs. That translates to a severe decrease in grants funds to the County Arts Commission-funds that have supported individual artists, artists in the schools, and staff positions providing technical assistance to arts organizations. With arts funding so drastically slashed, arts-related organizations throughout the region are scrambling to fund their programming and wondering where their budgets will come from in the future.

That very question was the focus of the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission’s Annual Symposium for the Arts, held on Friday, April 4. More than 90 arts advocates, arts educators, youth advocates, arts administrators, foundation representatives, artists, and city and county officials attended the event and took part in the fervent dialogue on issues affecting the vitality and future of the arts in the region.

In his impassioned and witty keynote address, Americans for the Arts President and CEO Robert Lynch assessed the seemingly grim situation with optimism, pointing out that the arts are a growth economy. The 2007 Arts and Economic Prosperity study conducted by Americans for the Arts revealed that there are 1,395 arts-centric businesses employing 5,023 people in Santa Barbara County, and that the nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $77.6 million in local economic activity.

“We know the arts are the economic engine of Santa Barbara,” acknowledged Mayor Marty Blum in her opening remarks. Recognizing the significant economic impact of Santa Barbara’s arts-related events, the city has traditionally invested heavily in the arts, allocating approximately $800,000 annually from its General Fund toward supporting and promoting the arts community. By far the largest allocation of arts funding has come from the city’s Redevelopment Agency (RDA). In its history, the RDA has granted in excess of $13.5 million directly to arts-related organizations for capital and infrastructure needs, as well as funding specific arts events such as the State of the Art Gallery and 1st Thursday. Yet despite the city’s ongoing financial commitment to the arts, the well is running dry.

“The funding party is almost over,” lamented Councilmember Helene Schneider, remarking on the RDA’s impending sunset date of 2015, which will eliminate a crucial source of revenue for the arts community. SchneiÂ-der, the City Council’s liaison to S.B.’s Arts Advisory Committee, cautioned against counting on Sacramento for revenues to sustain the arts, given the state’s $16 billion deficit and current rock-bottom ranking of 50th in the nation in per capita funds spent on the arts, at a mere six cents per person per year. She instead challenged the community to be creative in finding new and sustainable revenue sources to support the arts.

Along with a dynamic brainstorm session on new ways to fund and increase participation in the arts, two working funding solutions meant to ensure the vitality and future of arts in the region were presented at the event. The short-term source of funding comes in the form of the RDA-funded Next Generation Neighborhood Arts Demonstration Grants. Designed to seed initiatives offering meaningful alternatives to at-risk youth, the one-time mini-grant program targets established arts organizations engaging youth and families in Santa Barbara’s core neighborhoods in grassroots projects, with an emphasis on youth development and identifying the next generation of artists and community activists.

The Arts Sustainability Collaborative, a task force organized after the 2007 Symposium to address the pressing fiscal needs of arts organizations as traditional funding sources disappeared, proposed the long-term solution. The collaborative’s chief recommendation was to create an arts sustainability fund to help address reduced public funding for the arts, diminishing funding sources for individual artists, and shifting trends in philanthropic giving, and to sustain artists living and working in Santa Barbara. “Creating a sustaining fund dedicated to nurturing and supporting grassroots arts organizations and individual artists can have an enormous impact on the cultural vitality of Santa Barbara, both for residents and visitors,” asserted Rod Lathim, chair of the collaborative. The fund would initially be comprised of membership dues; collection boxes at galleries, museums, and other visual arts locations; gifts from private donors, foundations, and businesses; and a small per-ticket contribution on events at participating venues. Monies collected would be used to leverage matching funds from private donors and regional foundations, and would be administered through a granting process.

County Arts Commission Executive Director Ginny Brush stressed the need for artists, arts organizations, and the greater community to become engaged in the process of creating sustainable solutions for the arts. “With diminishing and increasingly unreliable funding sources for the arts, I urge the community to become involved in the work of Arts Sustainability Collaborative to develop creative, varied, and tangible sustainable funding solutions and to advocate for the arts on all levels,” Brush said. “I hope the Arts Symposium served as a catalyst to inspire increased community participation in the arts and greater partnering to sustain our local cultural vitality.”

Schneider concurred. “If Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus can significantly raise hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty through microloans and social businesses, surely a place as resourceful as Santa Barbara County can find a meaningful way to financially secure those things we hold dear to our hearts and souls.”


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