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Reason To Sing the Blues

You’d have to forgive patrons of culture for waxing poetic about Governor Gray Davis -- a cautious, calculating politician who is generally less than inspiring. Art lovers had reason to love: Two years ago, Davis boosted funding for the California Arts Council by more than 60 percent, from $20.1 million to $32.6 million. And while these dollars are a pittance of the state budget, not even Davis campaign contributors, such as the prison guards, made out as well on a percentage basis.

But then came the plot complication. A record statewide budget gap of $23.6 billion has Davis proposing to slash 57 percent of arts-council money. Department staffing could be cut by more than half, and numerous programs would fold entirely, including artist-in-residence grants and performance tours that benefit schoolchildren. In L.A. County last year, state arts funding added up to $7.4 million, much of which would disappear, like the grant to the Young Musicians Foundation, which provides training and performance opportunities to emerging young musicians.

In recent and better times, the California Arts Council was determined to become a cultural force. It spearheaded a Joint Congress of the Arts and a California Creativity Forum, co-chaired by no less than first lady Sharon Davis herself, to help develop state policy on arts education among other goals. The council‘s re-fashioned Web site contains arts news, grant information and a job-finder network.

Under Davis, the state’s arts funding per capita had risen from near last in the nation to 24th. And last year, Davis wanted to nearly double the arts-council budget, which would have given California one of the country‘s highest-funded state arts programs. But the governor blue-penciled last year’s raise amid looming financial woes, and the current Davis budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 does worse. It would certainly plunge arts spending to the basement again -- if not for the fact that other states are cutting too.

Arts proponents contend that they are taking an unfairly large hit. ”I‘m just mystified by the governor’s reasoning,“ said Laura Zucker, executive director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. ”The Davis administration has been wonderful. He increased funding for arts education so significantly two years ago. I don‘t get it. I can’t even fathom what he‘s thinking.“ Zucker noted that the state is the sustaining funding source for arts support in rural counties, which could shut down entirely. In L.A. County, one curtailed program would be an initiative to expand arts education in schools.

Like other interest groups, art supporters are wielding whatever clout they can, and to some effect. The state Senate Budget Subcommittee last week tentatively restored about $8.6 million, which would maintain offerings at reduced levels. And this week, a state Assembly budget subcommittee approved a similar increase. But this funding could still vanish during the lengthy budget-approval process. In the worst-case scenario, funding could plummet to amounts last seen in the decidedly unartful Pete Wilson administration.

”Any cut to arts funding is primarily symbolic,“ said Zucker. ”It’s not enough money to solve this budget crisis or any budget problem. There‘s no point pretending that it does. It’s meaningless fiscally.“

All told, winners are hard to find in this budget, and the losers will lose more than opportunities for cultural enrichment: About 400,000 low-income adults are likely to lose their eligibility for health benefits. And those who remain eligible would have to re-apply four times a year or risk being turned away. And there will be no cost-of-living adjustments in income support for the poor, elderly and disabled. School districts are increasing class size and cutting programs.

”About a third of the total cuts proposed in January and in May are to programs targeted at assisting low-income families,“ said Jean Ross, executive director of the nonprofit and nonpartisan California Budget Project.

In other words, in a down year for art, there‘ll be a boom market for singing the blues.