State bombshell mobilizes art lovers

Supporters of the arts typically are a mellow crowd, but this week an 85 percent budget cut proved too much, and a group of art lovers meeting in Chico suddenly turned lobbyists.

Around noon on May 20, 60 members of the California Assembly of Local Arts Agencies just happened to be holed up in Chico’s Arroyo Room collaborating on economic development, arts tourism and programs for at-risk children when they got some unwelcome news.

It was Al Maitland, CEO of the San Francisco-based group, who got the call on his cell phone: The bad news that came with Gov. Gray Davis’ May 15 revision of the state budget had just gotten worse. In January, the budget that provides ethnic arts events, after-school arts and other programs had been cut from $26 million to $13 million. On May 15, it was cut to a mere $5 million and also eliminated the $28,500 a year each of California’s counties—a total of $1.7 million—had been getting to run their own arts councils. Then, at a May 20 session of the Assembly, Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes, D-Fresno, suddenly and successfully presented a new idea: Add $3.5 million to the budget but direct it to state-level “organization support” and multicultural arts programs and leave the county councils out as of July 1. It passed along party lines 3-1.

The move sent the Chico visitors scrambling to borrow cell phones and call anyone and everyone who had pull on the state level. “We stopped the agenda,” Maitland said.

With a vote on the changes set for May 21 at 1:30 p.m., the arts supporters somehow had to convince three key members of the Senate to protest the decision so it goes to a conference committee vote, where testimony could be heard.

“If the Senate goes along with it, then it’s done,” said Maitland, who felt betrayed at Tuesday’s turn of events. “We’ve got to convince them to take some action on this.”

The nonprofit councils alone had been raising $24 million a year in grants—going a long way toward a goal of completely privatized funding of the arts. “You can see the irony in that,” Maitland said.

"This is really a terrible undermining of the whole system," he said, and, "$1.7 million is not a lot for 52 counties. The budget they’re proposing is about 10 cents per citizen."