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Funding the Arts During a Recession

September 30, 2011 2:11 a.m.

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando speaks with arts organizations about the importance of funding the arts during an economic downturn.

Related Story: Funding The Arts During A Recession


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ANCHOR: In economic hard times the arts may not be considered a top funding priority. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando speaks with people in the San Diego arts community about why maintaining such funding is important. Watch KPBS TV's Evening Edition tonight at 6:30 to see the creative ways the San Diego arts community has been dealing with the recession.

The recession has been hard on everyone and the arts community is no exception. San Diego has lost the Starlight Theater in Balboa Park and Sushi Contemporary Performance and Visual Arts downtown. It's been tough for arts organizations says Victoria Hamilton, executive director of the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture.

VICTORIA HAMILTON: If you look at combined contributed and earned income it's been about a 17% decrease since 2008.

But some of San Diego's larger and more established arts organizations have fared better and are even starting to see increases in attendance. Michael Rosenberg is managing director of the La Jolla Playhouse. He says it's important not to cut programming.

MICHAEL ROSENBERG: I think in tough economic times an easy choice is to scale back on the number of productions and instead what we've tried to do is be more aggressive about our work in the community and on our stages to show the people of San Diego that we matter and that we're an important part of this community.

Important enough to keep donations and public funding coming in even during a recession.

MICHAEL ROSENBERG: I think there are many reasons why you want to keep funding to the arts. Some of them are emotional and intellectual. It's hard to be a well rounded person who contributes to a healthy society without having exposure to the arts and an appreciation of the arts.

The San Diego Museum of Art's executive director Roxana Velasquez agrees. She says art institutions need to make themselves a vital part of the community and not be seen as luxury items that can simply be cut in difficult financial times.

ROXANA VELASQUEZ: Because the art museums -- and speaking of the San Diego Museum of Art -- is a place where people can feel commonalities, can heal their souls and more importantly can provoke creativity.

Velasquez says the arts help foster the creativity and innovation people need to deal with crises. During crisis moments she says Americans have behaved in ways that might be counter-intuitive. So during the Great Depression philanthropists chose to give generously to U.S. art institutions. The San Diego Museum of Art initially had to make some cuts but now Velasquez says it's seeing an increase in membership with higher levels of giving.

ROXANA VELASQUEZ: Everybody should remember that every single cent that is invested through education and philanthropic institutions, let me say in the museums of art is the best money spent, for now and for future generations.

If the emotional and intellectual reasons aren't convincing enough, Michael Rosenberg also pushes a financial argument for continued funding of the arts.

MICHAEL ROSENBERG: When you look at what the non profit arts economy contributes to San Diego, it's extraordinary and the city gets back many times over in tax revenue what they contribute to the arts organizations of San Diego. And I think that that's something that can often times be overlooked.

Victoria Hamilton has the numbers to show why arts funding is worth keeping.

VICTORIA HAMILTON: We have an annual impact report and really our numbers are focused on the 70 groups we fund in organizational support category and we know that if you look at their budgets combined it's over a 173 million in direct expenditures into the local economy, that's pretty significant, 7000 jobs, 98.8 million spent on salaries

One thing she thinks has helped the San Diego arts community is that the city didn't take the kind of cuts from local government that have occurred elsewhere.

VICTORIA HAMILTON: We have a mayor and a city council who understands the benefit of arts and culture, of jobs, and economic development, civic pride, quality of life.

That quality of life is enhanced by a vibrant and healthy arts community. The Playhouse's Michael Rosenberg says the arts community must continue to find creative ways to meet the ongoing uncertainties of this particular economic crisis.

MICHAEL ROSENBERG: We may be in a period where we're looking at hard times that go on for awhile and I think what will be interesting about that is what it does to the art we produce and how vibrant that art is and what it does to the partnerships we create to weather this storm.

For KPBS News, I'm Beth Accomando.