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California’s arts community gets a boost

California art lovers, rarely at the top of the state’s priority list when it comes to budgeting and policy, got some good news: The price tag of the vanity license plates known as Arts Plates is largely tax deductible.

And the California Arts Council, backed by communications pros who are donating their time, is ramping up a statewide drive to get the word.

On its face, the question of tax deductibility would not seem to have a bearing on the arts.

But in reality, the clarification from a senior staff attorney at the Franchise Tax Board means that funding for the California Arts Council is all but certain to increase. That’s because the ability to deduct the cost from income taxes is an added inducement to buyers.

The tax deduction, which has been under discussion for years, applies to the amount paid above the cost of a conventional plate. The plates cost $50 for the standard version and $98 for a custom version. The council gets about $40 for the original purchase and the full $40 renewal fee. About 90 percent of the money goes directly to arts programs, the council says.

Bill Turner, an Arts Council board member, explains the council hopes to increase awareness about art plates, which have been in existence for years, in order to increase revenue for the arts.  California is dead last among all states in per-capita art funding.

“Currently, we bring on average 3 million dollars annually from the sale of arts licenses plates,” said Turner. “That translates to 60,000 plates each year, more or less. The goal is to get that to about three million a year.  Even in the arts, not that many people know about the benefits the purchase of an arts license plate gives.  

“The thought was if we sold a million plates, that is really just preaching to the choir.  Within a state of almost 38 million people, we have well over a million people who believe in the value of the arts. If they purchase plates, we go from last place per capita to close to the top in per capita arts funding.  We should raise about 40 million dollars.”

The Dewey Square group is collaborating with the California Arts Council to create a new campaign to get the word out about arts license plates.

In times of economic distress, art funding in schools is seen as non-essential and is often the first to be cut, Turner said.

“The thinking has always been if you need to save money you need to make cuts, and that makes sense,” Turner said. “But what we’ve been finding is that’s like wanting to cut down on your travel expenses by putting less oil in your car. You could cut funding there, yes, but they would be very costly cuts. You stop putting oil in your car but for the pennies you save you have huge repair bills down the road.

“I think that is very much an analogy that applies to the arts.  You save pennies on the dollar cutting funding for the arts, both in schools and in general state funding.  What happens as a result of that, we’re finding, is that kids who don’t have exposure to the arts don’t do as well academically. You think we’ll keep science and we’ll keep English but cut the arts because that’s not going to have a detrimental impact. We’re finding out that’s not the case.”

In the 2001-2002 fiscal year under then-Gov. Gray Davis, the Arts Council reached a high-water mark for its funding–$32.2 million. By 2003-2004, it had dropped to $2.9 million in a budget approved by Davis and continued by Schwarzenegger after the recall.

This total includes grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, which have grown from $837,000 in 2001-2002 to $1.35 million in the current fiscal year.

“Because schools aren’t required to have arts programs, we have a specific grant program called Arts in Schools that helps professional artists go into classrooms and provide artist instruction and exposure to that otherwise students wouldn’t have the opportunity to get,” Turner said. “That’s a big program for us that these dollars directly fund. We also support lots of non-profits who get art into schools for underserved and underprivileged areas with grants.”


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