"Odyssey III," a 1973 sculpture by Tony Rosenthal, outside the San Diego Museum of Art.
“Odyssey III,” a 1973 sculpture by Tony Rosenthal, outside the San Diego Museum of Art. Photo by Chris Jennewein

Several members of the San Diego City Council’s Budget Review Committee noted Tuesday that a proposed arts budget devoid of major cuts is a major improvement over last year’s initial scenario, but said city culture funding should be consistently growing and not merely remaining flat.

Their comments followed San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture Acting Executive Director Christine Jones’ spending presentation to the committee, which this week is holding hearings on Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s $3.8 billion proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The budget includes nearly $14.5 million for the commission, which is about 1 percent lower than current fiscal year funding. The figure, in line with other city department cuts, stands in stark contrast to last year’s proposed budget, which slashed art funding by 31 percent and drew protests from San Diego’s cultural community leaders. The City Council eventually reduced the cuts dramatically.

Compared to last year’s proposals, the nearly flat “status quo” funding scenario elicited a celebratory mood among dozens of arts supporters who spoke in favor of the proposed budget during Tuesday’s meeting.

But committee member Lorie Zapf said lack of significant cuts this year should be a baseline, not something to cheer for.

“We need long-term stability. And whatever we’re at, that needs to be the floor, not the ceiling, going forward,” she said. “This is in our charter to support arts and culture. It’s a fundamental service — not an extra.”

Arts and culture nonprofits apply to the commission each fall for city funding, which supports performances, exhibits, parades and festivals. The commission awarded nearly $12 million to 133 organizations during fiscal year 2018.

Commission funding comes largely from the city transient occupancy tax, otherwise known as the hotel tax. This year’s proposed budget is also rounded out with $3.9 million from the city’s general fund, but the commission needs more stable financing, said committee member Chris Ward.

The Penny for the Arts plan passed by the City Council in 2012 included a goal to restore arts and culture funding to 2002 levels using 9.52 percent of the hotel tax by fiscal year 2017, but that goal wasn’t met. Arts funding reached $15.1 million that year, funded by 7 percent of the hotel tax, then funding subsequently fell to $14.6 million with 6.32 percent of the hotel tax during the current fiscal year.

Despite projected increases in the transient occupancy tax, the commission’s proposed budget includes only 5.92 percent of the hotel tax due to budgetary needs elsewhere.

“We’re definitely heading well into the wrong direction, and I would like to be able to figure out a way as much as our budget capacity allows us to do so to be able to correct that,” Ward said. “Of course there are a lot of competing demands. But it’s recognized, and we’ll see what we can do as final deliberations move forward in the coming months.”

More than 5.6 million people have experienced arts and culture services provided by nonprofits that received commission funding during the current fiscal year, according to a commission report.

A study by Washington, D.C.-based Americans for the Arts, meanwhile, found that San Diego’s arts and culture industry generates $1.1 billion in annual economic activity and supports 35,914 full-time equivalent jobs.

“We talk about return on investment — this is one of the very few things we do that actually has a very high ROI,” Zapf said. “It brings more money, more tourists, more heads in beds.”

— City News Service