You've likely noticed this sun setting behind an iconic row of palms as it darted in front of you on the 405. But unless you've got one of these specialty plates screwed on your own Prius, it's unlikely you knew that it supports the state's art funding. “I had lived in California my whole life, and I am an artist, and I had seen it everywhere,” says Malissa Feruzzi Shriver, chair of the California Arts Council. “I had no clue it was an arts plate.”
The potential of that plate was on Shriver's mind when she joined the California Arts Council's board and began to understand the deplorable state of California's arts funding. In 2000 the California Arts Council's budget was $32.2 million; by 2009 it had dropped to $5.4 million. Federal and state monies had dried up, yet a small but steady stream of donations continued to trickle in due to drivers choosing the plate. “Two-thirds of our budget was coming from a license plate that no one knew about,” she says. “We were skating by on the fact that some people liked the image and picked it for the palm trees.”
A new campaign spearheaded by Shriver called “Create a State” hopes to raise awareness about the connection between the plate and the arts — enough awareness to get 1 million California drivers to switch to the new plate. If a million people put this plate on their car instead of the standard-issue California plate, says Shriver, it would funnel more than $40 million into the state's arts education funds, put the California Arts Council back on track financially, and dramatically ease the arts funding crisis currently facing the state's public schools.
Shriver says the campaign was inspired by the (RED) campaign that her husband, Bobby Shriver, headed with Bono, and it similarly targets that sweet spot between celebrity culture and political activism. On Monday, 24 celebrities, deemed “Arts Drivers,” started appearing on digital billboards that support the campaign. The stars range from the expected parade of actors — Robert Redford, Harrison Ford and Annette Bening — to more eclectic creatives like Ed Ruscha and Alice Waters, and even some lesser-known local celebs like Father Gregory Boyle, the venerable founder of gang-diversion program Homeboy Industries.
At an event last night held on the Sony lot, a few of the celebrities featured in the campaign — Frank Gehry, Maria Shriver, Ozomatli — commented on the truly frightening state of our state: Currently, California is second to last in the country when it comes to arts spending per capita (only Kansas has us beat). Kind of embarrassing for the place that's home to both Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
Besides showing celebrity support, the campaign had to communicate to drivers that they're part of this bigger movement, says Mark Howell of Industrial Creative, the agency that created the campaign. “The California Arts Council is responsible for pretty much all of California's arts funding,” he says. “We have to get people to understand this is an arts plate, but also how it serves the state.” Future plans include videos where the Arts Drivers give testimonials about the importance of arts education, and a social media element that allows people to spread awareness about the plates. The website, ArtsPlate.org,l also will be updated with more information about where the funds go.
The California Arts Council has offered the “Coastline” palm tree design by artist Wayne Thiebaud as an option since 1994, and about 60,000 California drivers currently have the plates. Drivers pay $50 the first year for the plate (as opposed to $18 for a regular plate), $34 of which goes to the California Arts Council. Each year, the $40 renewal fee is donated to California Arts Council in its entirety as well. (You don't have to get a personalized plate — you can opt for a random sequential one — but according to the DMV's site, you can't get specialty plates if your car is leased, as so many in L.A. are.)
As an idea, I like the simplicity of it. You have to pay for your vehicle registration anyway — your wallet's out, you're feeling generous, simply check this box instead of that box, and you've performed your civic duty. But it made me wonder about all this effort to raise awareness of an 18-year-old plate design. I began to wish they'd created a new license plate design to commemorate this new wave of activism.
As it turns out, they did.
The campaign is statewide, and San Francisco residents are understandably less keen on the oh-so-very-SoCal image. So the California Arts Council recently commissioned Frank Gehry to design a second plate featuring a drawing of a car that would also (hopefully) appeal to Northern California supporters. Unfortunately, the 1993 motion that created the specialty plate allows for only one design, so they'll need to change the legislation in order to offer the two options.
It's still under wraps, but without even knowing what it looks like (lemme guess: squiggles), I would have liked to see this massive campaign around the launch of Gehry's arts-focused plate design, which is as yet unscheduled. Don't get me wrong, I love Thiebaud's art. I wouldn't want to change the palm trees into paintbrushes or something (oh God, I hope I didn't just give someone an idea). However, a new plate would hit home the message about the importance of creativity and innovation better than a billboard with the old design and the cast of Glee.
Since the target audience here is made up of culture-forward early adopters — and the kind of person who wants a personalized vanity plate — you need a status symbol that appeals to the consumption-conscious ego, much like buying that Prius. For some people, being the first to get a Gehry-designed plate on their car would be way cooler than getting the same plate that their neighbor already has. Plus the social media chatter from spotting a brand-new California plate on the street would add another dimension to the campaign that the old design can't deliver.
Of course, for the most consumption-conscious Californians — culture-forward early adopters without cars — the campaign doesn't offer an option to participate at all. I suppose you could just donate directly on the California Arts Council's website, but then you don't get a plate as an incentive. Maybe Gehry can doodle a fixie while he's at it, and placate the ART BKRS, too.
Update: According to the DMV there were 60,277 not 70,000 arts plates on the road as of February 2012 and $34 not $43 of the initial fee goes to the California Arts Council. The story has been corrected to incorporate these facts.