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Shipwrecked

Photo by Ted Soqui

I’ve never seen the economic climate worse in 35 years of managing nonprofit arts organizations. In terms of arts funding, we’re entering the perfect storm.

—Charles Dillingham
general manager of the Mark Taper Forum

Dark clouds loomed over the Arts Alive rally, staged on behalf of the California Arts Council (CAC) last Wednesday afternoon at Santa Monica’s 18th Street Arts Complex. As part of an attempt to redress a state deficit estimated at $38 billion, Governor Gray Davis has proposed dismembering the arts council with a 73 percent funding cut. Davis’ proposal is the latest in a series of surgical strikes on the CAC budget, which, at $19 million earlier this year, would be slashed to $5 million under the new proposal, according to CAC’s Adam Gottlieb.

As an illustration of the climate change in arts funding, the entire proposed $5 million arts council budget equals the amount given to a single grant recipient in 1995: the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance.

Furthermore, in what’s become a growing scandal, funds allocated for the museum’s “Tools for Tolerance” program (which trains educators and police on “diversity issues”) are a budget “line item,” meaning that it’s pre-allocated every year by the governor (with legislative approval) — bypassing the peer-review process of other grants. And though the museum’s CAC grant has dwindled over the years, its portion of the state arts budget stands to be 30 percent ($1.5 million) of the entire CAC allocation currently proposed by Davis. Besides the issue of fairness, this proposal begs the question of what a program educating kids and cops about diversity, however meritorious, is doing in an arts budget. (The governor has gone on record defending the museum’s line item as an imperative after 9/11.)

The museum’s good fortune is as much a testament to the lobbying power of the Wiesenthal Center’s dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier, as to the much larger social agenda of privatizing public services.

For more than a decade and a half, Hier has had powerful backers among both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, from former Governor Pete Wilson and former Democratic leader Willie Brown, to President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who invited Hier to briefings on the war in Iraq.

That one private museum should continue to receive such disproportionate public funding is particularly troubling in an era when federal tax cuts are driving many states toward bankruptcy and the public services they provide into oblivion. Meanwhile, according to 2001’s Federal 990 Forms, filed on the center and its related activities, Hier draws an annual salary of more than $400,000 (not including pension benefits) — up from $225,000 in 1994. His wife, Marlene, serving as membership director, receives $244,000, while a son, Alan Heir, is paid $107,365 for fund-raising activities and another son, Rabbi Aron Hier, associate director, makes $76,018.

Obviously, a private institution can pay its staff what it pleases, but since the center can afford such extravagant revenues for its administrators, detractors question the need of the museum to singularly gobble up 30 percent of the state’s already gutted arts budget when, last week across town, money problems compelled the county Natural History Museum to fire 23 full-time and part-time specialists and employees.

 

An ideological line was drawn in the asphalt of the 18th Street Arts Complex, amid towering papier-mâché puppets, sari-clad dancers, and children holding an emblematically endangered “goose that laid the golden egg.”

Blase Bonpane, director of the Office of the Americas, told a handful of supporters that the arts was one of the few remaining answers to our society’s “corporate-sponsored militarism” and that “militarism and the arts are incompatible” — referring not only to the militarism of war but to the prison industries of standardized testing and of private incarceration facilities, often built with public funds.

Expanding on that theme, Santa Monica arts commissioner Jan Williamson connected the proposed slashing of the arts budget to the attempted repeal of the federal estate tax (benefiting the wealthiest 2 percent of the population while stripping hundreds of millions of dollars from public coffers) as interrelated examples of a neoconservative agenda, starting in Washington, to weaken local governments and privatize public services.

This leaves three possible explanations for Davis’ proposal: the attempt to placate a ravenous Republican opposition; short-term stupidity stemming from desperation; or long-term strategy stemming from conservative Washington think tanks.

The stupidity is self-evident: Even at the pre-cut $19 million allocation, the arts budget is merely
.025 percent of the state budget. So what, in the state economy, does the governor think he’s remedying by slicing an almost invisible crumb with a razor blade? And what exactly is being sacrificed? Basket-weaving frivolities? Hardly. The Washington, D.C.–based arts-advocacy group Americans for the Arts points to Davis’ proposal further damaging the state’s already sputtering financial engine: An estimated 1.5 million Californians would not see live performances they might otherwise have attended. The average audience member for a live cultural event spends $22 on non-ticket-related expenses. You add up the lost business revenues. More than 50 percent of the CAC budget goes to arts outreach, social service and educational programs that have been proven to reduce crime, salvage at-risk youth and improve academic performance. So the proposed cut, taken from resources you’d need a Geiger counter to find in the state budget, removes resources that have been proven to spur local economies by supporting small businesses while sparing at-risk
youth from prison.

The long-term strategy is best explained by Bill Moyers at a recent speech given at a “Take Back America” conference sponsored by the Campaign for America’s Future.

“You have to respect the conservatives,” Moyers said. “Their leading strategist, Grover Norquist, has famously said he wants to shrink the government down to the size that it could be drowned in a bathtub. But instead of shrinking down the government, [the White House is] filling the bathtub with so much debt that it floods the house, waterlogs the economy and washes away services for decades that have lifted millions of Americans out of destitution and into the middle class. And what happens once the public’s property has been flooded? Privatize it. Sell it at a discounted rate to the corporations. It is the most radical assault on the notion of one nation, indivisible, that has occurred in our lifetime. I’ll be frank with you: I simply don’t understand it — or the malice in which it is steeped.”

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