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County Supervisors Vote To Reinstate Long-Lost Arts Entity

Borrego Springs public library is shown in a July 2019 photo.
Julia Dixon Evans
Borrego Springs public library is shown in a July 2019 photo.

In 1993, the county of San Diego eliminated their county arts commission. Thanks to the work of advocates and a unanimous vote from the County Board of Supervisors, it's on its way back.

Earlier this month, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to explore reinstating the long-defunct county arts and culture council. Supervisors Nora Vargas and Nathan Fletcher put the proposal in front of the board, though it has been a project that many advocates in the arts community have been pushing for years.

When the former commission, the Public Arts Advisory Council, was shut down in the early 1990s, San Diego became the largest county in the state without an arts entity.

"It was a different time, a different board. And what happens sometimes is when counties are faced with challenges, they make decisions and the arts seem to suffer," Supervisor Vargas said on KPBS Midday Edition. "As a board, we're very committed to really energizing this piece of history that I think is so important to our communities. And, as you know, arts and culture are integral to boosting our economy. And really, this creative and innovative approach, I think, is what we need for our community. So I am thrilled that we unanimously passed this board letter."

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Vargas said that it's a need she heard echoed throughout the county, particularly on the campaign trail, advocating for a single, regional and united voice for arts and culture.

"Since the county eliminated the Public Arts Advisory Council, I think it was in 1993, I feel that there was a void and lack of opportunities for a lot of amazing local artists to really have opportunities here in the region," Vargas said.

Dozens of artists and arts workers filed public comment ahead of time.

Patricia Frischer, who coordinates the San Diego Visual Arts Network, compiled all of the public comments in this blog entry.

At the Board of Supervisors meeting on Aug. 17, several members called in or showed up to present their case in person — like Michael Angelo Camacho, the executive director of the VAPA Foundation in the San Diego Unified School District.

"Coming from a poor farming village and growing up in a low-income community, I can say that kids like me need art education in our public schools and communities because it gives us safe ways to play and provides a healthy coping mechanism to deal with all sorts of tremulous situations. But most importantly, it inspires us to aspire for more. And I believe San Diego needs an art and culture commission at the county level because having an advocate at that level will allow the distribution of resources to be made in a strategic, coherent and powerful way," Camacho said before the board.

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Vargas said she had many similar conversations, and added that regional arts organizations have been working towards this.

"Time and time again, I heard from [arts and culture community leaders] and this is what they were asking for. And they actually had been working ... together to identify how we can really come together to ensure that we actually move forward with an arts council for the county of San Diego," Vargas said.

The process moving forward begins with the county's chief administrative officer, who will take a 90-day period to assess the role of the county in the arts and culture landscape in the region, including the way grants and awards are distributed.

"Where have we invested in the past? We also want to make sure that we identify opportunities to leverage state and federal funding," Vargas said.

The name of the proposal referenced in the board letter, was "reimagining vibrant communities through the arts and culture," which Vargas said points to the central role equity will play in the process of building the new arts entity.

"When we get back our report in 90 days, we're really looking at how do we increase equity and access to the arts and culture in the region and really capitalize on the economic potential of an increased arts and culture program throughout the county to really build equity. It's not just throwing the word equity around, but really building equity into everything that we do, including the arts and culture, because we know that the arts can change a young person's life," Vargas said.

After the initial assessment and study of how money is spent in the arts, the county will then work towards recreating the council.

"My goal is that we actually have an office of arts and culture at the county of San Diego," Vargas said.

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The council will then build partnerships — also including the border region and binational community — and work on equitable funding systems.

Vargas said that this council will operate distinctly from the City of San Diego's Commission for Arts and Culture — primarily in allowing for funding access to the broader reaches of the county's geography.

"We're talking about all of the different cities throughout the county that need to have access to these resources and opportunities, and they don't have to necessarily compete. It's a regional approach to really looking at how the arts can be funded the right way as we move forward."

In 1993, the county of San Diego eliminated their county arts commission. Thanks to the work of advocates and a unanimous vote from the county Board of Supervisors, it's on its way back.