Art and ethics

The honchos at the Arts and Business Council of Sacramento ought to review their conflict-of-interest policies. Or maybe write some.

Some local artists are grumbling about a program run by the Arts and Business Council of Sacramento—which rewards artists with valuable professional services.

The awards aren’t the problem. It just turns out that sometimes the awardees are business partners and family members of the people running the program.

For years, the Sacramento ABC has hooked up creative types with professional services. “They can get their contracts reviewed for free. They can get help with graphic design or marketing,” explained Michelle Alexander, executive director of the council.

It’s not a cash grant, but the awards are valuable, and they’ve historically been doled out on a first come, first served basis.

But now the group has decided to limit the awards to a smaller group of artists chosen by the ABC in a three-step, two-monthlong “intensive interview and application process.” The new program is called the Flywheel Arts Incubator.

Ten recipients were chosen this year, many of the names are familiar: There’s Sol Collective, Chalk It Up! and New Helvetia Theatre, to name a few.

The guy who runs the Flywheel program is named Tre Borden. According to his bio, he went to Yale and Columbia universities and UC Davis, and launched Mayor Kevin Johnson’s Greenwise Initiative while he was a fellow in the mayor’s office.

He was just nominated as one of the Sacramento Business Journal’s “40 under 40.” He’s 28 years old.

Which is perhaps why Borden doesn’t get why someone might question the fact that one of the grant recipients is Borden’s own business partner, artist Danny Scheible—deserving though he might be.

Or why it might look weird to an outsider for Flywheel to make an award to a band that Borden’s brother, Linton Borden, is a member of.

“I don’t think anyone was given preferential treatment because of my relationship with them,” Borden told Bites, adding that he recused himself from voting on his partner and his brother’s applications—though he was involved in all other aspects of the selection process.

“Had I not been in charge of this process, I think this is the group we still would have ended up with,” Borden said. He adds that he felt Scheible’s involvement “would further legitimize the incubator.”

“I see it as more of an alignment of interest, rather than a conflict of interest,” Borden explained.

Borden and Alexander also work on Mayor Johnson’s For Arts’ Sake initiative.

But both Alexander and Borden were careful to say that Flywheel is not in any way connected to For Arts’ Sake. You might guess otherwise looking at FAS’s own website and Facebook page. But there you go.

Bites doesn’t know a lot about art, but when an artist gets money, or services that are worth money, that’s also in the interest of his business partner. That’s why this looks like a conflict of interest.

Alexander objects. They’ve been upfront about the relationships, and “I think it would have been even worse to tell groups they could not apply because of their relationships,” she explained.

Well, no. Conflict-of-interest policies are pretty common out there in the world. For example, SN&R doesn’t allow family members of employees to enter into writing contests the paper holds—or any other contests.

And if the competition was as rigorous as Borden and Alexander say, then there are plenty of deserving, nonfamily members, nonbusiness partners, who could use the help. Why, then, would the Arts and Business Council want to risk even the appearance of anything unethical?