Support equity in public funding for the arts

By Supervisors Eric Mar and London Breed

San Francisco’s image is of a center of culture, diversity, arts and justice. But when it comes to funding arts, we have fallen short. We all play a part in the cultural life of our great city, and all of us should care about public investment in under-served communities.
Two city departments are dedicated to public investment in the arts: San Francisco Grants for the Arts and the San Francisco Arts Commission. The commission has been lauded for its Cultural Equity Grants program: indeed, it has been a national model. The grants program, however, has long been of concern to us and other members of the Board of Supervisors. We have questioned its performance in cultural equity and in keeping the city competitive and attractive to visitors as demographics shift. Along with artists and arts organizations, we’ve been concerned that the program is not meeting the goal of providing equitable resources to cultural and arts organizations in under-served communities.

In 2013, the board asked for an analysis of the grants program’s funding practices. The findings validated our concerns: “Over the 25-year period, organizations representing people of color received on average 23 percent of GFTA funds,” wrote the legislative analyst.

People of color make up nearly 60 percent of San Francisco’s population but the grants program devotes more than three-quarters of its funds to arts organizations whose leadership, programs and audiences do not reflect the lives and experiences of this demographic. This flies in the face of our stated ethos of fairness and equity.

At an April hearing, the grants program’s staff acknowledged that its funding formula would create inequity, but made the dubious claim that California’s Proposition 209 prevents the city from redressing this publicly funded racial inequity. Prop. 209 has nothing to do with the guidelines for arts funding and should never be used as an excuse for inequitable service. No law prevents the city from launching programs that ensure broad diversity and fairness for communities served by small- and medium-sized arts groups and neighborhood arts organizations.

We must fight to create the culture that connects and sustains us. For years, artists and organizations in under-served communities have made sacrifices to support the wealthiest institutions. It’s time for us all to work for equity.

We thank Mayor Ed Lee, who made equity a budget priority by allocating $2 million over the next two years — a 50 percent increase — to the commission’s Cultural Equity Grants Program. This is the largest raise this underfunded program has ever seen.

It is time for our arts funding to reflect our commitment to cultural equity and our strategic interest in being a cultural magnet for visitors. We should put our money where our art is: in the neighborhoods and communities that generate so much of our cultural vitality.

Eric Mar and London Breed are members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Tell your supervisor and the mayor that equity in the arts must be a priority for San Francisco. / and