County As Kingfish

— What's the difference between a 95-pound ballerina and a 350-pound offensive lineman? A public subsidy to the ballerina can pay for itself, as incoming tourist dollars more than offset the cost of the handout. That is decidedly not true of a subsidy to a football team, which gets much larger government gifts and attracts negligible tourist dollars, or any other dollars.

This year, the City is doling out $6.5 million to 83 nonprofit arts groups and $391,084 to 36 festival and neighborhood-celebration groups. By contrast, the Chargers wanted a subsidy that could have approached a billion dollars. The Padres got a direct subsidy of $270 million and probably much more in concealed City-financed infrastructure projects. The ballpark was supposed to be self-financing, but it's costing $20 million a year or more.

Once again, though, there will be a budget battle over the wee arts subsidies. The City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture, which monitors and helps finance arts groups, will have to battle for every penny. There have been consistent cuts in the commission's budget in recent years. Between 2002 and 2004, more than 600 arts jobs vanished because of such slashes.

But arts lovers and political realists expect more of the same. Jim Mills, former president pro tem of the California State Senate, is well versed in both the arts and politics. With the infrastructure rotting and library hours being whacked, "at the very best grants for these [arts] purposes should be diminished, and at worst the City should give up on grants for these purposes," he says. Money from private donors will have to make up the difference.

Many argue that in bankruptcy or in a financial bind in which politicians have to make tough choices, essential services and infrastructure will be given what little money is available.

But those who support the arts commission make powerful arguments. The commission provides funding for and vets the arts groups. "Every group applies every year; it's a very complex process, involving complete financial and program reports," says Welton Jones, retired arts writer for the Union-Tribune. "There is an inquisition, and when it's finished a group is assigned a grade."

The commission's judgment is respected and helps attract other donors, says Jones. By contrast, the county board of supervisors behaves like the former Louisiana pol Earl Long, "sitting in his pajamas with a bag of money next to him, giving out some each morning to people who say they want some," says Jones. "Each supe gives it out, and all supes vote for each other's lists."

(Mills also refers to the County the same way: "Each supervisor has a barrel from which to pass out whatever he or she feels like passing out -- pure pork barrel, pure patronage," he says.)

The source of City money for arts groups is the transient occupancy tax, or hotel tax. It was originally meant to go only for direct promotion of tourism, but over the years city leaders came to realize that the arts attract tourists.

There are statistics to support that argument. The commission has a study showing that two years ago, 86 organizations sold 1.5 million tickets and admissions to out-of-city visitors. "The tourists who come for the arts experience stay longer, stay in a hotel rather than a home, and spend more than other tourists," says Jeff Dunigan, a La Jolla financial advisor who is a member of the commission.

Through the so-called multiplier effect, the tourists who bought those 1.5 million tickets generated a $369 million impact to the San Diego economy, according to the commission. You have to be careful with such studies, however. Pro sports mendicants are masters at inflating them, because they don't take the substitution effect into account. Neither do arts groups. Someone going to a baseball game or the Old Globe will not be spending money somewhere else.

But some cultural tourists come to San Diego only to go to a specific event or facility, notes Dunigan. He believes that the City generates more than $7 million in transient occupancy tax just from the tourists attracted by cultural events. Thus, it's self-financing.

What about the arts groups? San Diego Opera's budget for the current season is $14.7 million. It will earn $7.8 million in ticket sales. The company should get $500,000 from the City, "but we do not know," says Ian Campbell, general director, and the figure has diminished in recent years. The opera is getting $380,000 from the County, "but County funding is arbitrary and could vanish at any time." San Diego Opera gets no state money, and federal funds have dropped from $100,000 when Campbell arrived in 1983 to $25,000. The bulk of the money "has to come in contributions, which is a big nut to crack. We have a balanced budget and have had for 20 years now, but I fear for the future."

Charles Castle, deputy director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, says its budget is $4.65 million; the City contributes $319,000 and the County $53,000. The museum's La Jolla base has been open since 1941. It has a location downtown and is expanding there.

"What we have had to do over the last three years as City funding has declined is to reduce expenses, and we have raised some new money," says Castle. A major way to reduce expenditures is to put on fewer special shows and exhibitions. Money for acquisitions of artworks comes from the endowment, not operating expenses, so that hasn't been affected.

The museum can make a case for bringing in outside money to the community. "In the last survey we did, 20 percent of our visitors to our La Jolla location were from outside the U.S., including Mexico," says Castle.

Dunigan points to the work of Richard Florida, author of the 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class. Florida, an academic, rates various metro areas by his Creativity Index, which measures such things as patents per capita, the importance of high tech, and an area's openness to diversity of thought and lifestyle. Of the top-ten cities, San Francisco is first, Austin second, San Diego and Boston are tied for third, and Seattle is fifth.

An area's economic success no longer depends on its economic geography -- "what's in the ground -- ore, water," says Dunigan. "Microsoft can locate anywhere." And company chief executives over and over say that they want to see cultural amenities. "The existence of a professional sports team is never in the top ten" of chief-executive preferences, says Dunigan. San Diego has universities, scientific research institutes, and other features attractive to the creative class. It is essential that culture continue to flourish, says Dunigan.

Here's how Florida puts it: "Cities like Buffalo, New Orleans, and Louisville struggled in the 1980s and 1990s to become the next 'Silicon Somewhere' by building generic high tech office parks or subsidizing professional sports teams. Yet they lost members of the creative class. Not once during any of my focus groups and interviews did the members of the creative class mention professional sports as playing a role of any sort in their choice of where to live and work." But the arts are essential.

Courtney Coyle, a member of the arts commission, says spending cuts have left the staff "barebones. I don't know what would happen if we took additional cuts. And what about the institutions that we fund? We are concerned that people will have to close doors and stop programming; artists will move elsewhere. That will have economic reverberations."

No doubt it will. The only solution may be for members of the creative class to make bushels of money and donate it generously.

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