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Arts & Culture

Threats To Funding For San Diego Arts Organizations

Threats To Funding For San Diego Arts Organizations
Carl DeMaio has proposed to cut the city's funding to arts groups by 25% in his plan to balance the budget in 2011. We look at how small and medium arts organizations operate, how they use the city's grants, what would happen if they were cut 25% and what the city as a whole would lose.

Carl DeMaio has proposed to cut the city's funding to arts groups by 25% in his plan to balance the budget in 2011. We look at how small and medium arts organizations operate, how they use the city's grants, what would happen if they were cut 25% and what the city as a whole would lose.



Seema Sueko, co-founder and executive artistic director, Mo'olelo Performing Arts Company.

Dalogue Smith, President and CEO, San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory and chair of the San Diego Regional Arts Coalition.

Council Member Carl DeMaio has scheduled a Town Hall Meeting to discuss his budget plan Tuesday, December 14 from 6pm to 8pm at the NTC Command Center, 2640 Historic Decatur Road.

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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.


In an effort to close San Diego's 70+ million dollar budget deficit, just about all city programs are on the chopping block. City's elected officials say they're working hard not to cut into the city's public safety. The police and fire departments, but that means other programs may be facing big cuts. Included in San Diego City Council member Carl demy's package of budget proposals is a 25 percent cut to local arts organizations. The cuts would affect over a hundred groups and save the city about $1.5 million. To find out how those cut backs might affect San Diego's arts community, I'd like to welcome my guests. Seema Sueko is cofounder and artistic director of Mo'olelo performing arts. Sueko, good morning.

SUEKO: Good morning, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Dalouge Smith is president and CEO of the San Diego youth symphony and conservatory and chair of the San Diego regional arts coalition. Dalouge, welcome.

SMITH: Thank you happy to be here.

THE COURT: Thank you.

Youth symphony, and chair of the San Diego regional arts coalition. Dalouge, welcome.

SMITH: Thank you, happy to be here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And we invited city councilman Carl DeMaio to join us, his office told us he had a prior commitment and couldn't make it. But we are interested in what our listeners think about a propose cut to arts groups in San Diego. Call us with your questions and your comments, the number is 1-888-895-5727. I want to get both of your reactions to this proposal, just first off on the face of it, to cut 25 percent from the city's grants to arts organizations, Seema, let me start with you.

SUEKO: Sure. I think the most important thing to realize is that council member DeMaio's proposal is really just one counsel member's proposal, and in actuality, we are looking forward to getting the mayor's proposed budget in early 2011, and then working with all the counsel members and the mayor to find a budget that fits the best interests of all the citizens of San Diego.


SMITH: Yeah, I would actually see that San Diego made a choice a four years ago to create the strong mayor's position. And so we've given the authority, the chief executive responsibility to the mayor. And from my perspective, and I think it's widely held in the arts and culture community, the mayor's proposal 14 include suggestions from the counsel members, but ultimately it's his responsibility to share with all of us, his view of what's gonna be the right choice for the city to close this budget gap.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Dalouge, you said it was a divisive proposal. Tell us why.

SMITH: There's more to the proposal than the percentage. And we as an arts and and culture community have a long history of working together. We have a long history of both program attic class action, resource sharing, venue sharing, and there's a component to the proposal that talks about making smaller number of grants and making those larger. And that would simply change the dynamic of who was receiving funding and who wasn't receiving funding, and that's inconsistent with the nature of our local arts and culture community, and our class action with the city over these 20 years.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Seema, what's your reaction to that part of the proposal.

SUEKO: I agree with what Dalouge said. I think it's important for your listeners and the people of San Diego who does understand who does get funded through the commission for arts and cultures allocation program. They include groups as diverse as the veterans museum and memorial center, young audiences of San Diego, the Aga project, play rights project, and together with a number of all the organizations, both small, midsized and large, we serve low to [CHECK AUDIO] refugees, veterans issue active duty military and their families, adult learners and other populations, we partner with other community groups together. And we work with these groups to address major social issues that are impacting San Diego, whether it's bullying, youth violence, citizenship, PTSD, health and families, arts and culture funding goes toward all of that. So when a proposal comes to [CHECK AUDIO] it's actually cutting services to all the people of San Diego. I do also want to emphasize one other point they think is really important for listeners to happened, and that is that local taxpayers do not pay a dime of this. That's very important to understand. The funding comes from the transient occupancy fund. Which is when somebody stays in a hotel or a motel, when they're a tourist in San Diego, they pay a small tax that goes into this fund, a sixth of that is taken for administration, two thirds of what's left is put into the big pocket that's there to help promote San Diego. And attract more tourism. And so arts and culture is a part of the large tourism sector. In fact, Dalouge, do you want to talk about the return on investment there?

SMITH: Yeah. So the annual allocation from the city's commission for arts and culture is about $7 million through the nonprofit arts and culture community. We have information from conviz that says we are seeing as a city over seven helped million dollars just in economic activity related to the tourists that are coming as cultural tourists. I think there are very few places where you can get a 100 times rush on investment. And that's to Seema's point about this is an investment that the city is making in multiple layers of the fabric of our city's life. Economic, social, youth, education, and maintaining the integrity of the very widely recognized national mottle that San Diego has developed, in fact this summer, Americans for the arts, the leading national service organization for the arts and culture community will be in San Diego. Because we do represent the model city.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Dalouge Smith, he's president and CEO of San Diego youth symphony, and chair of the San Diego regional arts commission. And with Seema Sueko, cofounder, executive artistic director of Mo'olelo performing arts. There has been a proposal made by council member Carl DeMaio to cut and perhaps changing the structure of that funding sell. We're inviting you to comment by calling us at 1-888-895-5727. I want you both if you would to tell us exactly how your organizations use the grants that you get from the city and what they go into, how they go into maintaining your organizations, for instance. Tell us about the youth symphony and how they use those city funds.

SMITH: Sure, so just to create some context, San Diego youth symphony and conservatory trains and provides an opportunity for youth of all ages and all musical abilities to participate in large ensemble programs and to participate at the level that's right for them. We don't the way that we use these funds is to provide access to students who couldn't afford to participate otherwise. We have approximately 50 percent of our annual revenue is earned revenue, and the bulk of that is from tuition, but there are students who can't afford tuition. And those students need scholarship assistance. Well, are the city funds allow us to fill the gap so this we can pay our instructors to provide instruction to all of the students that want to participate.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And how much does the youth symphony get on average from the city per year.

SMITH: In our total annual budget of $800,000 we get about $50,000.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Seema, what does Mo'olelo performing arts group do with the money you get from the city?

SUEKO: Certainly. Well, also to provide some context, Mo'olelo is a community focused, socially conscious equity theater company. We're a small nonprofit organization as are all the recipients in terms of being nonprofit organizations. Our complete budget at Mo'olelo is 183,000. This year we received 16000 from the City of San Diego. And that money is used to be able to -- similar to what Dalouge's talking about, provide access. So for example, we recently produced a play called yellow face, which addressed issues of racism in a -- and issues of bringing communities together. And we were able to use the funding to be able to help support our three part arts program. Championship goes to title one schools. It allows us to send an artist to the school, to prep the students on the show, bring the students to come see the show, and then follow up in the classrooms with a workshop, that's aligned with California Department of Education content standards so that wee helping teachers meet these requirements [CHECK AUDIO] we're deepening the learning for these students so that these issues resonate a little deeper. And quite frankly [CHECK AUDIO].

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. And I want to tell everyone once again, my guests are simal suHueco Eand Dalouge Smith, and we're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. So my question to both of you now is how much of a hit would it be if you saw those city funds go away? Seema?

SUEKO: It'd be pretty significant. The funding program that the majority of us get funds through is called the oh, success program or OSP, and the great thing about it is that those funds can be used for operating expenses. As nonprofit organizations work we quiet -- you know, we work hard to secure grants from foundations and corporations and individuals. They only pay for a certain portion of what it takes to provide our services of government also only pays for a certain portion. But the great thing about the OSP program is it will pay for -- help us pay for things like being able to maintain the copier machine, being able to paycheck check all of those less sexy things that other funders may be -- you know, they want to fund the sexy parts of our programs. But these are the nuts and bolts that are required to just operate on a day to day level to be able to provide the services to people.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is it similar to the youth symphony, Dalouge?


SMITH: In our case, let me just 50 again create a little bit of context. We all know of the economic strains that everybody -- every business, every public agency, every nonprofit has had to endure. And in my institution, and art institutions across the city, decisions have been made already for the past two and a half years to contract, to refine and find every possible efficiency that we can. Which means that when you get to a point where you're looking at potentially 5 to 10 percent of your annual revenue being withdrawn again, you start to suffer in your ability to provide programming. So in our case, it would challenge our ability to provide access for students. But we wouldn't -- we wouldn't take a singular view and just cut off one thing. We would do what everybody does, what the city is looking to do want we would look at every program again. We might say to ourselves, we've been able to underwrite scholarship family concert tickets so that those families with that challenge of paying for access can also see their students perform. Well, we would probably eliminate that before we eliminated the scholarships. And it's all a matter 've how deep do we go in each of the various areas.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Dalouge, you earlier you made the case that arts organizations generally do when they're asking for funding from a public institution, they, you know, about how much the arts generate in terms of economic -- to the economy of the city. And I'm wondering though now, with the city in such a recurring, deep budget deficit, if the symphony comes back to you, and if taxpayers come back to you and say, that's just not enough right now. I mean, we really just can't afford this if we're talking about cuttings me, if we're tucking about brown outs and fire stations. Do you have a response to that?

SMITH: Well, my first response would be let look at the history of our relationship with the city. And in fact, for the current budget cycle, the arts budget was cut. But it was not cut as largely as is being proposed. There was a ten percent cut. And that was proposed by the mayor. We recognized the import of the city finding savings from as many places as it can. And we didn't rally to oppose to. And likewise, we are looking forward to the mayor's next round of proposals. And we recognize that bee are a part of the whole of the community. And we need to do our part to maintain the strength of the whole of the community. And so we're looking forward to continuing to be strong partners. Of the and we believe that as a time when stresses are increased, finding those areas that provides the highest return or provide for the most long-term benefit are the ones that you do want to preserve as well as you can. And we think that mayor Sanders has demonstrated that he understands that. And we look forward to helping counsel member Carl DeMaio understand that as well.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Seema, is there anything you'd like to add to that.

SUEKO: I think it's also important to recognize that arts and culture actually are not in competition with fire and safety. These are completely different funds. Again, the funding for arts and culture comes from tourists, from a tax that's levied on tourists, not on the citizens of San Diego. . And that money, we're able to turn a sick .4 million investment into arts and culture from the TOT in 2009 into over a hundred and $68.1-million of matching revenue. 750 million poured into the economy through tourist dollars, and so again, we're not in computation rather, we're really working in concert with the other interests to be able to -- to really ask the broader goal of this question is how do we create a vibrant, liveable San Diego for all San Diegans? I think counsel member DeMaio's proposal stops at a problem and actually doesn't look at the broader goal of let's create a really liveable San Diego for everyone. And we can only do that through collaboration.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have a couple of people who'd like to join the conversation. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Kevin is on the line from San Diego. Good morning, Kevin, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Well, good morning.


NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, Dalouge and Seema.

SMITH: Good morning.

SUEKO: Good morning, Kevin.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So my comment is simply this, I think when you look at arts and culture and investment in San Diego, it would be a shame for which us to tamper with an investment that has grown substantially in the 20 years that the arts and culture commission has existed. We wouldn't tamper with a large event like comicon, we were all scared that that would leave the city. [CHECK AUDIO] the same exists with arts and culture. The growth and the amount of attention that we get nationally for what we have done for arts and culture in San Diego is staggering. And it is a lot to do with the work of people like the commission, and the work of people like Dalouge and Seema, and I think it would be a shame for us to cut these kinds of programs that are bringing value and bringing tax dollars to the city.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the comment, Kevin, I appreciate it. Noela is on the line from Encinitas. Good morning, noela, and welcome on These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: [CHECK AUDIO] thanks for taking your time to do so much for our community. I've just seen first, [CHECK AUDIO] and I'm wondering does this money that comes from our tourists paying the hotel fees, is that basically a temporary of transfer of taxes paid by those people, and is it gonna be a transparent sort of thing that maybe somebody like yourselves could actually sit in on with the mayor and see that that money is actually going to closing our budget deficit? And I guess my comment is, and I don't know if you could answer that question or not, whether you know or not, whether that's a temporary transfer of funds and does it go directly into the budget deficit, but also, why can't we raise the taxes even more on our tourists? Because they come here for arts, they come here for culture. I hear so often that San Diego isn't the most cultural place people have ever visited, but if we start taking away what we do have that's so valuable, people will continue to come and go to the hotel rooms, and see what we have to offer [CHECK AUDIO] answers off the air.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you, noela, thank you for calling. Now, I think it's clear that those tourists, those hotel funds that the TOT funds that go towards art grants, I mean they go to other things besides funding the arts. Of.

SMITH: Well, let me just clarify that when the TOT, which is call would the transent occupancy tack was established, the original purpose was for the promotion of San Diego. And the city has identified that the work that happens through the commission for arts andulature in partnership with the nonprofit arts and culture community is dedicated to that purpose. And I think we've provided some basic statistics to demonstrate that that's true. So there have been additions to that original TOT level, but the $0.04 that was originally established, continues to be -- I guess the right word is guided by a counsel policy that says it should be invested in promotion.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But they can decide to put it into the general fund and use it for other things, is that not true.

SMITH: That is true. The counsel continues to have discretion as it does with every budget, and the mayor continues to make decisions along those lines.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Goch Anow, I'm wondering, in the arts community, how are you collectively responding to this proposal to cut a drastic amount, really, from the arts funding that you received.

Q. The city? 25 percent. What -- are you getting together collectively to refute this in some way?

SMITH: Had, to be quite frank, we were not making any direct response to this proposal because as Seema said, this is one counsel member's proposal. The real proposal to which of a response will be necessary is the mayor's proposal. And another media organization actually recently wrote about that the arts must be preparing a response, when in fact we weren't.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's too early as far as you're concerned. But you are preparing yourself for cuts, were the you not?

SUEKO: Hopefully not. I think actually mostly right now we're interested in really educating the community. Because I do think there's a lot of misinformation that's out there. The heading misinformation that San Diego taxers think that they pay for this. Which again they don't. Another misinformation that they think the funds go toward Oldsmobile specific organizations and not realize the depth and the diversity of arts organizations, arts and culture organizations that are funded. And also how I would say every citizen of San Diego is actually impacted to arts and and culture, has access to arts and culture. And so I'm mostly interested in education and making sure we're able to tell the true story for what this art [CHECK AUDIO] does for the City of San Diego.

SMITH: And one thing I want to add is there's been a lot of talk recently about public partnership, and again, the arts and culture commission is another model that's 20 years in existence. We're not talking about creating something that is gonna totally restructure the way the local city government works. We actually are demonstrating to the national community, but even here locally, that public private partnership does work. And we actually believe that it's important to cell operate the success of that, as the city looks at other models for implementing those ideas.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, even in the best of times, a lot of people will come up and say, you know, arts organizations should really be able to take care of themselves. If they're in the free market, the free market should support them. We had a caller who had to drop off the line whose point was that, the city shouldn't be funding anything the free market could find. And I know this is probably an argument you've probably heard and responded to many times. So Seema, could you thought address that as we come to the end of our discussion here?

SUEKO: Right, well, again, we are nonprofit organizations which means we are public charities. And that designation allows us to apply for grant dollars from a variety of sources, because there's the understanding that in exchange for providing these public services to -- in many cases, under represented and under served communities, that the free market, quote unquote, doesn't necessarily pay for that. But these are important services to elevate all -- our entire society. And so that's my response just again to understand, like, all other nonprofit organizations, that's how we operate. Of and also we have -- we do diversify our revenue streams and work on very tight, tight budgets. I operate my organization with a staff of one. You have now met the entire staff of Mo'olelo performing arts company. And we to that, but still reach out to, you know, over 17000 people that we've reached to in our years, da-Luke, did you want to add anything to that?

SUEKO: I think you've answered it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I think we have time for one quick phone call. Clifford is calling from Clairemont.

NEW SPEAKER: This is Clifford Taylor, and I'm hated. I see this as a bunch of political nonsense. I'm a home owner, a tax payer since 1989, I'm only making a little over $29,000 a year now. And I see this to be an issue of a culture and higher civil society. And people like me don't need a bigger convention center or a football stadium or maybe development in the center city of high development. My children are ages 9, 12, and 15, I want them to learn how to play cello and violin, and have an edifying culture experience and be able to contribute something greater than just money to the coughers of the city Treasury. And I think all of these politicians, have been watching us -- [CHECK AUDIO] full of nonsense and self interest.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: [CHECK AUDIO] because it sounds like you are primed for City Council member Carl DeMaio [CHECK AUDIO] in support of his proposals will be there, and perhaps Clifford will be there as well. [CHECK AUDIO] I want to thank my guest, Seema so Hueco, and Dalouge Smith, thank you for speaking with us today.

SMITH: Thank you.

SUEKO: Thank you for the opportunity.