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Tempers are running high in San Francisco, where the powers-that-be have unleashed yet another full-on demonstration of the cluelessness of U.S. cultural policymaking. This essay is in four sections: I will first describe what has happened; then discuss the context; the response; and finally, explore the reasons why San Francisco and every other U.S. city should consider cultural policy with the seriousness it warrants, shifting from a posture of personality-driven ignorance to responsible pursuit of the public interest in culture.


On 15 November, the City Controller’s office released a memorandum entitled “Results of the Financial Management Review of the San Francisco Arts Commission.” Among the 12 recommendations, two, dealing with the Cultural Equity Grants (CEG) program, are the most controversial. They say that the program should:

  • Cease funding and administering four of its eight initiatives, on the grounds that the program’s enabling legislation authorizes only the “Cultural Equity Initiatives Program (CEI), a Program for Commissions to Individual Artists (IAC), the Project Grants to Small and Mid-size organizations (OPG), and the Facilities Fund (CRSP). The other four are recommended for elimination because they are not cited by name in the city Administrative Code: Native American Arts & Cultural Traditions (NAACT), Innovations in Strengthening the Arts (ISA), Arts & Communities: Innovative Partnerships (ACIP), Arts for Neighborhood Vitality grant categories (ANV)
  • Ensure that no recipient receives more than one grant at a time, on the grounds that 14 of the 172 grant recipients received multiple grants in FY 2010-11. The guidelines say no recipient may receive more than one grant for the same project, but the Controller finds “some risk that the same recipient may use multiple grants for one project” sufficient grounds to limit eligibility further. Over the last five years, the Galeria de la Raza, a long-lived and highly respected, Latino visual arts organization deeply rooted in San Francisco’s Mission District, received 12 grants totalling just under $237,000, an average of $47,000 a year.

The audit was undertaken in the aftermath of the resignation under pressure of Luis Cancel, who became Director of Cultural Affairs in 2007. In San Francisco, Cancel was an unpopular leader whose departure followed on disclosures that he had been phoning in his job from his vacation home in Brazil, making unauthorized expenditures, and acting abusively toward staff. By the time he left, it was widely acknowledged that the the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) was in disarray. The programs that had been doing good work continued, but without functional leadership at the organization’s helm—indeed, despite leadership.

In July, the Commission chose to appoint one of its own members—JD Beltran, an artist without evident experience at the helm of an organization—to serve as interim director. A hurried search for a new director commenced with a call on 1 August and a deadline for filling the position of 9 September. The process has been extended, but an announcement is expected soon.

Beltran requested the audit and has agreed to implement all 12 of its recommendations, which seems precipitous for an interim leader with scant agency experience. Many of them respond to the SFAC’s chaos, to be sure—one recommends ways to encourage employees to report misconduct, for instance—but most respond with bureaucratic solutions that would be identical for any city agency, whether it regulated a fleet of trucks or cleaned the streets. The SFAC’s public purpose—the values that should shape cultural policy in San Francisco—is not part of the frame.


CEG is a stepchild of Grants for The Arts, a municipal funding program subsidized by income from San Francisco’s Hotel Tax Fund, which began in 1961. This is what is known as a “transient occupancy tax,” rooted in the idea that visitors to a city pay a tax on hotel and motel rooms to underwrite activities that attract more visitors. The program funds parades and public attractions like street fairs, but the bulk of the money goes to arts organizations.

In most places, this kind of revenue is distributed according to a “them that’s got shall get” formula, for instance, as a percentage of the successful applicant’s annual budget. The largest organizations, mostly red-carpet institutions, get the bulk of funding. In San Francisco, for instance, in the last fiscal year, the Symphony and Opera each received well in excess of $600,000, while the Ballet and Museum of Modern Art each received just under $400,000—in each case, dwarfing other grants in their categories. There is some diversity within the universe of grant recipients, but the disparity in funding is roughly the same as all those charts we’ve been seeing lately, graphing our growing polarization of wealth.

Over the years, artists have pressured (and sometimes sued) the city to expand the definition of eligibility. In one famous case in the 70s, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which had received grants from what was then called the “Publicity and Advertising Fund” until being rejected in 1966—evidently on account of its politics—successfully sued for inclusion (although it took a few years for the Fund to implement the judge’s ruling). CEG was created nearly 20 years ago in response to the reality of San Francisco as a multicultural city in which resources continue to be concentrated in largely white institutions. As its name indicates, CEG was created to bring about greater cultural equity, providing support and building capacity, especially among groups grounded in communities of color. Here’s how CEG puts it:

Grants to support the development, sustainability and growth of San Francisco arts organizations that are deeply rooted in, and able to express the experiences of a historically underserved community, such as African American, Asian American, Latino/a, Native American, Pacific Islander, Disabled, Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgendered and Women.

The audit reflects a remarkably naive and uninformed relationship to these contextualizing purposes. It almost seems to have been written by a computer—or human beings impersonating a computer’s pristine disinterest in human events. For instance, the four above-mentioned CEG programs described in the enabling language basically come down to four categories: cultural equity, individual artists, small and mid-sized organizations, and facilities. In terms of content, the four programs targeted for elimination fit these broad categories as to intended recipients and uses, but they have been labelled for clarity of specific purpose. While Shakespeare pointed out that “a rose by another name would smell as sweet,” the machine-like logic of the audit is this: a rose by any other name…should be eliminated.

The audit, focused on financial management, also fails to take seriously key questions, such as leadership, as if the SFAC mess could be sufficiently cleaned up by tidying tracking and reporting systems. Then-Mayor Gavin Newsom reportedly sought a high-visibility national figure when he anointed Cultural Affairs Director Luis Cancel. This turned out to be a mistake, one that was allowed to ripen and fester at length, even as knowledgable, committed artists and administrators complained in vain. Such a lack of leadership emerges again and again in public cultural agencies. Someone with a high profile is parachuted into an unfamiliar community by officials who feel confident that reflected glory will accrue from bringing in a celebrity arts administrator. Cultural policy doesn’t come into it as much as photo-ops at art openings. Oversight is sketchy, dialogue with the larger community is pro forma or non-existent, and a system that was already on shaky ground falls apart from lack of care and knowledge.


Let’s see, now, how does this read? Hmmm….

The city creates a special initiative to respond to residents’ deep desire for cultural equity, one small step toward equalizing access to resources. It is housed at the Arts Commission, along with many other programs and initiatives. This initiative supports artists and groups—mostly grounded in communities of color or other marginalized categories—who have not been able to obtain meaningful resources from mainstream sources. As the story unfolds, the host organism falls into disarray, rotting from the head. Supposedly objective (i.e., astoundingly under-informed and therefore unprepared) auditors are summoned to diagnose and recommend, but they are given a brief that covers only a few questions. Their recommendations are mostlly administrative and general, but they single out the special initiative for significant cuts.

I’m guessing the embedded racism of this story is invisible to the auditors, the tone of whose report suggests a touchingly naive belief in the objective, uninflected, universal applicability of its management philosophy and regulatory approach. No one has offered a better critique of the presumed neutrality of regulators than Anatole France:

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

But the SFAC’s weak cultural competency is not invisible to countless artists in the San Francisco community, who are mobilizing to call attention to the audit and overturn its most damaging recommendations. Community meetings are scheduled, actions are being planned, and—if the circumstances that triggered it weren’t so deeply disappointing—I’d be happy to say a long-deferred public dialogue on essential questions of cultural policy is beginning to take shape.

A message from renowned performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena has been circulating at light-speed. Here’s a taste of response from the affected communities:

I have watched Galeria [de la Raza] over the years produce more exhibits and ad hoc cultural events than most organizations their size, and they manage to do it with a shoestring budget and a handful of part time staff members and volunteers. And their extremely well attended shows always get good reviews in the local press. So, the issue here is not “unfair funding” to a shady organization but rather a racist view on arts funding: THE FUNDING OF COMMUNITY ARTS IS UNDER ATTACK! The establishment is closing ranks and, I dare to say, would even consider unthinkable that the city’s large white arts organizations fairly share the ever-shrinking funds for the arts. And they will use audits, lawyers and the mainstream press to state their case.

If this trend continues, soon, not only the experimental and politically-minded artists will be expelled out of the city but the many non-profits of color that give SF a special character will have to close their doors due to insufficient funding. Then, the city will become what so many wealthy people and white politicians secretly wish: A bohemian theme park…minus the bohemians. And all the middle and upper class people will wake up one day to a world of unbearable sameness.

Paradoxically, this year the extremely “favored” Galeria was forced to let go of two precious staff members and to cut the salaries of the rest of the staff, including the director.

In response to the outcry, Interim Cultural Affairs Director JD Beltran has issued a letter to the community inviting people to a meeting on 5 December, saying, “I am reaching out to you to clarify some of the recent findings and our responses to the recent Controller’s Office report, which we have sensed are being widely misunderstood by the community.” Beltran writes that the Arts Commission’s acceptance of the audit’s recommendations “in no way indicated that any funding to the community through our grant programs would cease or decrease.” If that turns out to be true, it will be perceived as an appeasement in response to community mobilization, as the powers-that-be hoping that the promise of money will enable them to evade the larger conversation that needs to happen.


Like many other U.S. cities, San Francisco treats cultural policy like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the arts world. The drama that unfolds behind the scenes is largely a tug-of-war between direct beneficiaries of arts grants: how big is the funding pie? How will it be sliced? Who gets to eat regularly, and who gets the scraps? If the system’s real goals can be deduced from the way things are run, they are first and foremost to satisfy those direct beneficiaries, and almost always, the largest presenting and exhibiting institutions—those with the biggest budgets and most prestitious boards—receive the bulk of funding.

In such an ecology, most community-based organizations—those that define their own work as a response to social conditions and local aspirations as well as an expression of artistic creativity—are forced into a perpetual state of emergence, fundraising mightily just to secure enough resources to survive, but almost never enabled to prosper, let alone attain the much-desired end-state of “sustainability.” Money is important, but true sustainability requires systemic change and support, which is seldom forthcoming.

In such an ecology, the scrutiny of auditors and the burden of punitive management systems almost always falls in inverse proportion to budget size. (I will leave it for another time to explore why regulators feel so much more keenly the fear of being cheated on a small scale by have-nots than of being robbed blind by the haves.)

In such an ecology, of course, there is honesty and hypocrisy, skill and ineptitude, discipline and laxity at all levels. I make no claim for the superiority of the artists and groups funded by CEG, nor for CEG itself in comparison to other public cultural initiatives. But neither is there any basis for the counter-claim—that the well-funded institutions are superior—which is implicit in the way this discourse is framed. There is as much good and bad art, as much good and bad management, in marble palaces as in rented offices. But by and large, the bad work of the prestige institutions costs taxpayers far more and attracts far less public scrutiny, far less draconian response.

I sometimes balk at a simple explanations, but this one seems to be true: taking on the biggest recipients of public largesse offends people who have the capacity to make trouble for whistle-blowers; whereas taking on those deemed marginal carries much less risk.

So what is a better way? I’ve written at length on this subject many times (read my book New Creative Community for a detailed look at means and ends of cultural policy). In brief, then, effective, democratic public cultural policy expresses the public interest in culture in four ways:

  • It is reality-based. It is grounded in an assessment of a community’s character and identity, down to the granular level of neighborhood diversity. It is based on a rich account of cultural infrastructure in all its particularity, of what is strong and what needs development, of what is enduring and what is endangered, of what has been mainstreamed and what has been marginalized. Numeric data can be useful, but you don’t get this kind of thick description without engaging people from all social groups, the more deeply the better, ideally through action-research using arts work as its ground.
  • It regards the entire cultural landscape as an ecology. It addresses cultural development in a way that’s analagous to economic development. Just as economic development initiatives address blockages in the flow of prosperity, cultural policy seeks to mend and strengthen frayed places in the cultural fabric: places where members of certain communities have been made to feel less than full cultural citizenship; places where rich cultural resources exist without adequate mechanisms to nurture, express, and extend them to the full community; blockages to participation in community cultural life, and so on. Interventions may be made in any sector—commercial culture, nonprofit organizations, independent artists, education, health, parks, libraries—always with attention to how each works as part of the whole. Public agencies support, facilitate, collaborate to fill gaps and strengthen existing work, rather than focusing on their own positioning and media visibility.
  • It uses many tools and skills. It has many instruments, including funding, research, regulation, training, providing facilities, providing technical assistance, generating public dialogue, building capacity, and others. Grants matter a lot, but it isn’t only about the grants.
  • The entire community is its intended beneficiary; it is accountable to all. Artists and arts organizations are important constituents for cultural policy, and support for them helps to enact it, but policy isn’t conceived as a special-interest initiative designed just for them. Instead, the ultimate goals are full cultural citizenship for everyone: a diverse, vibrant, and participatory cultural life; ample opportunity for creativity, participation, exchange; and a civic landscape that richly embodies the cultural heritages and contributions of all community members. Artists and arts organizations have critical, essential, and valued roles to play in realizing those goals, but their entitlement to public support is based on their commitment and excellence in those roles, not on budget size or their connection to VIPs. Transparency in public administration earns publc confidence.

Imagine a civic cultural ecology in which leaders are chosen for their alignment with the public interest in culture, for their knowledge of community cultural life, and their skill in engaging and inspiring others. Imagine arts commissioners and other appointees given the orientation and information they need to properly conceive and pursue their roles in enacting the public interest in culture. Imagine a way to audit public agencies that assesses, first and foremost, their effectiveness in embodying local cultural development goals and values, and recommends administrative and other arrangements that can enhance that effectiveness, encouraging a healthy flexibility and more emphasis on responsiveness and accomplishment than on creating a fortress of administrative systems.

Public agencies should track their money to promote accountability, of course. They should be managed rationally and fairly, of course. But they should infuse their every action with public purpose, ensuring that the way they work and relate supports the public interest in culture. Surely, one reason people have responded with such alarm to the San Francisco Controller’s recommendations is that they reveal no hint of alignment with larger cultural purpose.

As it happens, among SFAC’s initiatives, CEG comes closest to being grounded in democratic cultural policy goals, giving community members and policymakers a basis on which to judge its work. Its enabling language (from San Francisco’s Municipal Code, Part II, Section 515) says that:

The Cultural Equity Endowment Fund is established to move San Francisco arts funding toward cultural equity. The goal of cultural equity will be achieved when:

  • when all the people that make up the City have fair access to the information, financial resources and opportunities vital to full cultural expression, and the opportunity to be represented in the development of arts policy and the distribution of arts resources;
  • when all the cultures and subcultures of the City are expressed in thriving, visible arts organizations of all sizes;
  • when new large-budget arts institutions flourish whose programming reflects the experiences of historically underserved communities, such as: African American; Asian American; disabled; Latino; lesbian and gay; Native American; Pacific Islander; and, women.

We see stories like San Francisco’s current drama unfolding over and over again in public cultural agencies: no matter how dynamic and charismatic leaders may be, no matter how good their intentions, when you put people in charge—whether as directors or policymakers—who lack the larger framework of knowledge and understanding that illuminates the public interest in art, they can’t accomplish much of value. Their focus sticks on placating powerful constituencies, or on generating a certain type of public profile; clueless about what they should really be doing, they exercise their power over underlings as a way to reassure themselves they are in charge. The employees who have a strong sense of context and direction are often able to go on doing good work under these circumstances, especially with someone running interference, protecting their work from cluelessness in high places. The work of those without that internal alignment and protection suffers most.

I hope this challenge will be perceived as an opportunity to align San Francisco’s cultural policy with the public interest in art, in pluralism, participation, equity, and transparency. In the meantime, it’s good to remember how often artists of color are put on show to support allocations to public agencies, as testaments to their commitments to social inclusion and cultural diversity. Listen to Aretha Franklin, As Good As I Am to You”:

If you have a dollar
And I have a dime
I wonder could I borrow yours
As easy as you could mine.
Because when you need my love
And I give time after time
And turn around and found me no returns
Then my friend you’ll be using my dime.