Art Attack

Small arts groups want the city to stop favoring the Gang of Six

Call it art ache. The words have become more and more inseparable as the funding pie for right-brain activities in America grows ever smaller -- and as San Francisco's arts community continues to fight for a fair distribution of the crumbs.

In the two months since Bill Lee replaced Rudy Nothenberg as the city's chief administrative officer (CAO) and became the first person of color to hold the powerful post, anxiety and rising temperatures have sparked meetings, memos, parties, and counterparties as the arts community has tried to gain Lee's ear -- and, most important, his sympathies.

The reason: Lee, the former director of Toxics, Health, and Safety Services at the Department of Public Health, is now responsible for, among myriad other tasks, overseeing Grants for the Arts (GFTA), a city office with a $9.3 million budget fed by the Hotel Tax Fund. This fiscal year, GFTA distributed $8.5 million to 178 arts groups and cultural events, from the San Francisco Symphony ($808,500 grant winner) to Samoan Flag Day ($10,100 winner).

And Lee's arrival brings the promise of what many hope will be a creative thaw from the eight-year reign of Nothenberg, whose closed-door decisions tended to favor pricey European art for the tutu and tuxedo set -- "works from dead white males," as one observer puts it.

"Bill Lee has a reputation as someone who is very sensitive to the needs of the neighborhoods," says Mike Housh, aide to Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who shares the arts community's long-standing concern that multicultural, gay and lesbian, and small arts groups in general are passed over in favor of the "Big Six": the San Francisco Symphony, S.F. Opera, S.F. Ballet, the Museum of Modern Art, American Conservatory Theater, and the Exploratorium (winners of $3.36 million plus more than $5 million for building maintenance at Davies Symphony Hall and the War Memorial Opera House).

"My take on things," says Housh, "is that Bill Lee wants grants to the arts to be as equitably dispersed as possible. But this is a whole new field for him, and I would think it would be awhile before he forms his policies."

Which is where all the lobbying comes in.
"We need to educate our elected and civic officials about the impact that arts have on the city of San Francisco," said Brenda Berlin, vice president of the Arts Democratic Club, at a wine and Calistoga water reception for Lee held last week at the Center for African and African-American Art and Culture (arts grant: $90,000).

Lee, the man everyone wants to help mold, listened attentively at a table in front of 60 arts leaders, activists, and visiting politicians, including mayoral hopeful Roberta Achtenberg and Supervisor Barbara Kaufman. The routine was becoming familiar: Just the week before, he'd attended a similar if more contented party thrown by artists calling themselves "Friends of Grants for the Arts" (for the most part pleased with the status quo, their main goal was to ask Lee to end the three-year freeze on arts-grant increases and the freeze-out of all groups who hadn't previously been awarded money).

"The arts employ one out of six workers in this city," Berlin now told Lee and the crowd. "We are in danger of losing more than $5 million in National Endowment for the Arts funding, which will impact mostly smaller agencies and people of color who don't have the ability to withstand cuts that the larger organizations do. We're really up against it."

Then came the anger.
When whites need someone to bless the soil for a groundbreaking ceremony, "it's, 'Let's call an American Indian,' " said Michael Smith, a member of the Sioux tribe and president of the 20-year-old American Indian Film Festival (arts grant: $8,500). "But when money becomes available, who do these same Europeans forget? Unless we attach some white Ph.D. to the project, we don't get funded, or the money goes to Anglo organizations that are doing something about Indians," said Smith, whose calm fury had some in the audience bowing their heads in shame.

"What we're asking for is democratization of the culture of this city," summed up Ellen Gavin, executive and artistic director of Brava! for Women in the Arts (arts grant: $15,800).

Lee tried and for the most part failed to soothe feelings. He said he was committed to cost-effective, open government and increased diversity. But when it comes to arts funding, he conceded, "This is frankly one area that policy-makers look at when they know they need to make a cut." Lee said he was considering increasing the money allotted to the city's five cultural centers. But since the arts are funded through the Hotel Tax, he said his most pressing work was to make sure, particularly by supporting sports teams, that tourists continue to flood into the city to their current tune of $4 billion a year.

The Big Six and other large arts institutions are making progress toward meeting affirmative-action goals, Lee added. "The bottom line," Lee said, "is that the most money goes to the most people or that money goes to the places with the most attendance."

But that opinion, the audience protested, doesn't reflect cultural reality: Affirmative-action hires don't make the symphony any more accessible to people who can't afford $140-to-$1,600 season tickets. "Besides, an Indian powwow from my perspective is the same as a Beethoven symphony, and it draws thousands of people," said artist Duane Big Eagle. "When can I expect a fairer pattern of distribution? How do we get beyond the Eurocentric view of the arts?"

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