Fresno City Hall renews debate on art subsidies

The Fresno BeeJuly 6, 2014 

fulton mall

Water from a fountain flows from a sculpture on the Fulton Mall on Feb. 5, 2014. MARK CROSSE/THE FRESNO BEE

MARK CROSSE — Fresno Bee Staff Photo Buy Photo

Fresno City Hall is back in a familiar area of strife -- the arts.

After years of penny-pinching forced by the Great Recession, city officials are trying to decide when it's OK to resume subsidizing an art world vital to Fresno's quality of life.

Council Member Oliver Baines says now.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin says later.

Council Member Lee Brand says much later.

For now, it appears Swearengin has the upper hand.

One thing is certain. Baines surprised everyone at last month's final budget hearing when he asked that the Fresno Arts Council get $100,000 from the new spending plan. That motion, carried on a 4-3 vote, shattered the city's de facto gag order on nonprofit spending. The silence won't soon return.

"The Arts Council performs a service for the city," Baines said in a recent interview. "But we don't give them any funding at all. I thought this was a good gesture to recognize the value the Arts Council gives to the city."

The Arts Council is a nonprofit with an annual budget of about $100,000, some coming from the state. It promotes the arts throughout Fresno and Fresno County. Its City Hall duties include the review of proposed public art projects.

The Arts Council is probably best known for organizing ArtHop on the first and third Thursday of each month.

Arts Council Executive Director Lilia Chavez said Fresno's diverse artistic community gets it -- City Hall had money woes.

"It was fair that we didn't have support before," Chavez said. "But now the city is recovering. It's fair to expect that those programs that benefit the city the way the arts do should be supported."

Then Swearengin sent the Arts Council City Hall's version of a Dear John letter. She vetoed the $100,000 stipend (plus two other last-minute spending amendments), but was quick to emphasize how much she respects art.

"Those motions were for good causes and worthwhile projects, and if we had a 10% operating reserve and sufficient police and fire staffing levels, I would have no problem supporting them," Swearengin wrote in her message to the council.

But, she added, "that is not the case."

Short-term and long-term struggles have begun.

The former revolves around a potential veto override. Council President Steve Brandau and Council Members Clint Olivier and Brand voted against the subsidy. Turn one of them into a yes and Baines' idea has the five votes necessary to kill the veto.

Of course, an override isn't possible until a council member asks for it. Asked if he'll take the plunge, Baines said, "I don't know at this point."

An override isn't on the July 10 council agenda. Council members have 30 days, essentially the month of July, to act.

"At this point, I don't see a fifth vote," Brand said. "The arts are very important. Maybe down the road, when the city is in better financial shape. But our mission is core services."

Those core services are police, fire, parks, infrastructure, all funded to varying degrees from the same general fund that would be tapped for the Arts Council. Brand lists all the needs, then returns to the Art Council.

"If you give them $100,000, where do you stop when other nonprofits ask for help," he said.

Long-term, different hurdles must be cleared. History is the first.

The display and support of public art was among the era's burning issues a half-century ago. Fresno in the early summer of 1964 was just two months away from opening what would be nationally acclaimed Fulton Mall. From Tuolumne Street on the north to Inyo Street on the south, the six-block mall was to be a treasure trove of outdoor art.

That's what happened. But the mall has fallen on hard times, and now Swearengin is close to bringing cars back to Fulton Corridor. Her critics are already at the ramparts, vowing to retain the original vision for the mall art.

Fresno some 20 years ago tried the Arts to Zoo sales tax experiment. This lasted for years, generated a bitter court fight, produced two hard-fought elections and, in the end, collapsed. Millions in anticipated arts subsidies disappeared.

Then, in early 2010, the Fresno Metropolitan Museum, long the big dog in local arts circles, imploded in a spectacular disaster of debt. Millions landed on the backs of taxpayers.

None of this conflict is lost on Baines and the Arts Council's Chavez. How do they get Fresno back in the mood to help the arts?

For starters, they say, forget The Met -- that was someone else.

The arts community understands financial prudence, they say. The Arts Council runs lean but is solvent. Most of the money would be passed to artists as grants, Chavez said.

Most important of all, they say, the arts community is Fresno's meal ticket as Swearengin tries to revitalize the city's core.

"We attract people to downtown," Chavez said. "We are directly in line with the mayor's goals."

Baines and Chavez are prepared to let all this simmer in the public's mind. Time, they hope, will give City Hall the confidence to again nourish the arts with cash.

Phil Bowers, a well-known local multimedia artist, said city officials must get over recession-shock.

"What they don't realize," Bowers said, "is art equals money."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272, ghostetter@fresnobee.com or @GeorgeHostetter on Twitter.

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