Personnel Profile: Craig Watson

Craig Watson is the new Director for the California Arts Council. He is currently the Executive Director of the Arts for Long Beach and has also worked in telecommunications. He starts on August 15.

How did you first get involved in the arts?
Just out of college, I worked as the assistant to my sculpture professor as he took on a major public art commission for the library at California State University at San Diego. Shortly after this, I moved to the Santa Rosa area and helped convert an old elementary school into a community art center, and then worked as an assistant director there for the Sonoma County Arts Council. These were followed by a fellowship at the National Endowment for the Arts, helping to found and run Rural Arts Services, a technical assistance provider to the arts in northern California, and then co-directing Santa Barbara Arts Services, where I oversaw the development of the first county-wide cultural plan. Even as these experiences were followed by a long business career, they forever marked me as an arts activist.

What attracted you to the funding side of the arts?
My interest came as a result of my early work in arts management, but also through my later business career. Over the course of a 25-year career in telecommunications, I often had a significant say in my company’s philanthropy efforts. I saw first-hand the impact of financial and resource contributions to the non-profit sector, and some of the most satisfying and worthwhile investments were in the arts.

I had the great joy to serve as the founding chairman of a new Board of Directors to take on the acquisition and fundraising for what today is the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, Calif. The Armory is a highly successful community arts center that provides services and arts education programs to children and adults in the Pasadena area.

I also recognize the important role the arts play in the creative economy of California. I’m not talking solely about the nonprofit arts sector – which alone is a $5 billion industry, as large as the rental-car industry in the state – but also about the innovators and entrepreneurs who drive the state’s economy. Digital media technology, filmed entertainment, product design; these industries are driven by creativity and entrepreneurship, two characteristics that are linked to arts participation and creation. Steve Jobs told a graduating class at Stanford that one of the most influential classes he ever took was calligraphy, because the experience provided the inspiration for Apple’s earliest innovation with typography and design.

What are some of the different challenges of supporting the arts in urban or rural locations?
Some are obvious, like the differences in the resources. Urban areas typically have a greater number of funders. This makes rural arts practitioners highly skilled in stretching their resources in very creative ways. That is not to say that urban arts challenges are any less daunting. Artists and arts organizations in big cities work in highly competitive environments and can have problems breaking through the information and activity clutter.

What sort of projects are you planning?
One of the first orders of business is to grow the program that accounts for more than 60 percent of our current funding: the Arts License Plate. We have set a goal of selling one million plates to California drivers. If we do that, the annual budget for the California Arts Council goes from just over $5 million to $40 million, and funds like this could make a real difference in growing the arts sector in the state. The California Arts Council lost almost all of its General Fund support in 2003. The funds that Californians voluntarily pay for Arts License Plates – the one with the sunset and palm tree motif – now represent the financial backbone of the agency.

The California Arts Council should look to partner with other state agencies where the arts and artists can play a role – corrections, economic development, education and several other areas where the unique problem-solving skills of the creative community can be harnessed.

The California Arts Council has since 2005 emphasized the importance of arts education – both K-12 and life-long learning – in its programming. While the responsibility of providing visual and performing arts education in California schools is with the Department of Education, there is a role the California Arts Council can play. Research from the Hewlett Foundation shows that 89 percent of California K-12 schools fail to offer a standards-based course of study in all four arts education disciplines – music, visual arts, theatre, and dance – and many elementary students have no access to daily arts education.

Has the economy been difficult?
The current economic climate has made things much tougher for the entire arts and non-profit sector in the nation, not just California. But there may be a silver lining. It has forced arts groups to question their traditional ways of doing things. The organizations that I have seen be most successful during this period are keeping their eye on the quality of their art and audience experience, while shedding peripheral activities that have pulled them from their core strengths. Arts organizations must reject what is often referred to as “mission creep” – activities undertaken to satisfy some funder or supporter, that pull the organization away from its core mission.

What are some of the projects that you have been proudest to work on?
In addition to helping launch Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts, I would say my work in Long Beach and at the Arts Council for Long Beach is what I’m most proud of. In less than three years, the agency has created the largest celebration of Arts and Humanities Month in the nation. GLOBAL is the umbrella “brand” for Long Beach’s month-long celebration in October. The state’s arts agency can certainly return to a place of significant impact by growing its financial resources. But just as important is growing the California Arts Council’s influence on the quality of life for all Californians by helping to extend the healing and ennobling qualities of the arts and art experiences into every corner of the state.

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