Arts under siege, starved of funding

Street art in Santa Barbara., August 2011. Philip Bird

Sophocles, the fifth century B.C. Greek tragedian, wrote, “Whoever neglects the arts when he is young has lost the past and is dead to the future.”  Despite this grand recognition through the ages, arts and arts education programs remain under siege across the country.  California continues to suffer, the result of more than a decade of inadequate arts funding.

State Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, is fighting to reverse this abysmal trend through legislation he’s proposed to restore funding for the California Arts Council.  Senate Bill 1432 would allocate $25 million from the state’s general fund for this purpose.

The California Arts Council is a state agency dedicated to advancing society through the arts and creativity.  Every year it provides education, support, partnerships and millions of dollars in grants for art, arts education, music, theatre, dance, design, literature, culture and more to schools, local programs and communities statewide.

Since 2003, California’s Governors and the Legislature have allocated $1.1 million annually to the Arts Council, the bare minimum necessary to qualify for a $1 million National Endowment for the Arts grant.  This lack of foresight has put California dead last among all 50 states in per capita funding for its arts agency.  Although the Council was created under Gov. Brown in 1976, he has for now abandoned his own history, allocating slightly less than $1.1 million in his proposed 2014-15 budget, currently under review in the Legislature.

The Council’s annual budget, about $5 million total, comes from the general fund allocation, the NEA grant, nearly $3 million in fees generated from the “arts-supporter” license plate fund and private donations.

A report commissioned by the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles in 2013 (and funded in part by my company Ovation) examined the annual economic impact of California’s creative industries.  Using 2012 data, the 2013 “Otis Report” found that more than 1.4 million California workers are employed, that’s roughly one in 10 jobs, directly or indirectly thanks to the state’s creative community.  These industries generate 7.8 percent of the total gross state product; $273 billion in various economic impacts that translate into $13 billion in state tax revenues.

Our rapidly evolving global economy demands a dynamic and creative workforce that requires support for the arts at all levels.  As a critical primer of an economic engine generating $13 billion in annual tax revenue, it stands to reason that the California Arts Council’s state allocation be increased now, and permanently.

Sophocles was correct to identify the importance of immersion in the arts at an early age.  Children involved in arts education greatly increase their aptitude in literacy, science and math.  This improvement is especially evident among children at-risk, reducing absenteeism, drop-out rates and recidivism.  As a 15-year Los Angeles County reserve deputy sheriff assigned to some of our most challenged communities I have seen this firsthand.  I can tell you with complete certainty; I have never arrested a child who was leaving an afterschool arts program.

Absent my own experience as a child on field trips, to art museums, with artists who supported those museums, and in afterschool programs that fostered creativity and artistic expression, I’m sure I would not have had the opportunity to lead Ovation, the nation’s only arts television network.  I would not have had the inspiration to create and write the film National Treasure, nor would I have had the chance to spend millions of dollars in local neighborhoods on production costs for the movie.   It is because of arts funding, especially here in California, that I was encouraged from a very early age to dream, to create, to write, and to achieve.

We can only hope that Gov. Brown sees the wisdom of increased funding for his California Arts Council when he evaluates the state’s budget before signing it in June.  In the meantime, I urge the California Legislature to pass Sen. Ted Lieu’s SB 1432, as well as two other bills now making their way through the Assembly; AB 1662, Assemblymember Ian Calderon’s (D-Whittier) Arts Council funding bill and AB 1625, Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian’s (D- Sherman Oaks) bill to establish permanent funding for the Arts Council.

I believe that the strength of our democracy is measured by our commitment to the arts, but the Republic is at risk, we are being outspent in arts funding by countries around the world, from the European Union, to China and India.  California is being outspent by every other state in the nation.  We are failing and we cannot allow ourselves to fall farther behind.  It is both instructive and imperative that we heed the words of Sophocles, by neglecting the arts we are lost to the past and dead to the future.

Ed’s Note:  Charles Segars is the CEO for Ovation, the nation’s only arts television network.  He co-wrote and was executive producer for the hit films National Treasure and National Treasure 2 – Book of Secrets. 


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