San Francisco Mime Troupe and others threatened by 2013 grant shortfall

The good news this week is that Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian, who represents the area around Van Nuys in Southern California, is trying to revive the moribund California Arts Council. He’s asked fellow assembly members to join him in co-authoring Assembly Bill 580, which “restores funding to the California Arts Council (CAC) and creates a stable revenue source for art programs that will be enjoyed and taken advantage of by local communities throughout the state."

That’s a very worthy goal, and Californians all over the state should ask their representatives to get behind it. Beloved arts programs all over the state, even icons like the San Francisco Mime Troupe, are having trouble holding on in today’s shaky economy, and they need our help.


Jerry Brown, in his first term as Governor, launched the CAC in 1975 at the urging of artist Eloise Pickard Smith, founder of a seminal and effective arts program in the state's prisons. She became its first director, and in its first years the CAC brought arts programs to all kinds of underserved communities and populations

Nazarian knows this history. He said Monday in a letter to colleagues that “the arts have proven vital to California's economy, specifically: the non-profit arts-related sector statewide supports 91,090 arts-related businesses and 500,891 jobs for people in California.” He pointed out that “the arts revitalize depressed neighborhoods, attract creative workers and industries, lower crime, especially juvenile crime and improve health outcomes for the elderly.”

But in the last 10 years programs in California provided by arts organizations of all kinds have suffered major cutbacks because of the decline in government funding for the arts at both the state and national levels.

In 2003 appropriations to the CAC were cut by 97%. Since 2003, California has ranked last or next to last among the states in per capita investment in the arts. Now we allocate a pitiful three cents per person from the general fund to support the arts.

I have first-hand knowledge of what’s been lost because I interned at the California Arts Council when I was in law school in the mid-1970s, and I’m now a volunteer member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe board. When I worked for the CAC, SFMT originals Peter Coyote, now a famous film star, and Luis Valdez, founder of El Teatro Campesino, were on the Council, along with literary luminaries like poet Gary Snyder. SFMT playwright emerita Joan Holden remembers that with the CAC’s help performances were “spread around wonderfully” throughout the state, even into unlikely venues like juvenile halls in small towns and elementary schools.

For more than 50 years, in the Bay Area and around the world, the Troupe’s staple offering has been “free shows in the park” which combine political education with a satiric edge and original music. Though admission has traditionally been free, audience members have been asked to “put something in the hat” after the show, and many who can afford to do so have responded generously.

And for at least 25 of those years passing the hat has been supplemented by grants from government organizations like the California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as from non-governmental foundations like the Hewlett Foundation. But in today’s shaky economic climate, these sources have been drying up, and audience contributions have also shrunk as citizens feel the pinch.

It turns out that, as you might suspect, there’s really no such thing as a “free” show. Costs have pyramided as revenues declined. Some cities even charge the Troupe substantial fees for the privilege of using their parks to provide citizens with informative entertainment with no admission charge.

In the last few years traditional funding has not been consistent enough for the Troupe to continue to subsidize free shows in the park without asking for even more help from the public. The company has been trying, with some success, to fill the gap by staging fundraising events for individual donors, but they’re still playing catch up.

This year the major grant the SFMT sought from the National Endowment fell through, like NEA grants for many other arts organizations, with the federal government’s sequester follies suspected of being part of the cause of a reduced budget. There’s hope in the arts community that foundation grants, which are also down, might revive along with the stock market which supports most of their endowments, but that won’t happen this spring.

The fiercely independent artistic collective which manages the Troupe has cut costs across the board year after year as the grant picture got worse, even working without pay for much of recent years, but this year there’s just nothing left to cut. They have reluctantly concluded that they must quickly raise another $30,000 from their supporters to add to their cash on hand by the end of this month, or they won’t be able to put on their summer season this year.

They’ve already instituted a mid-course correction: working toward to a shorter season with fewer actors and musicians and simpler, easier to move sets than they’ve had in the past. The summer’s planned production has the working title of “Oil and Water”, with the theme of informing the audience about impending climate change, and there’s a silver lining here: Shrinking the show, besides saving money, will set a green example consistent with the theme by shrinking the company’s environmental footprint.

Collective members hope that this strategy will become a sustainable model for future seasons even if a percentage of grant funding is restored as expected. Like all smart arts organizations these days, they are re-inventing themselves to do more with less as they meet today’s challenges.

But the citizens of California should do their part too.

AB 580 would increase CAC funding from the measly three cents a person to about $2.00 per person (approximately $75 million total, up from $1 million). Even at that rate, California would still not rank in the top ten in state funding for the arts.

Legislators considering the bill should remember that subsidizing arts programs has been an excellent stimulus for a lagging economy, as the history of the WPA in the Great Depression demonstrated.

In a 2011 study commissioned by the Irvine Foundation, University of Minnesota Economics Professor Ann Markusen (formerly of U.C. Berkeley) reported that

“California’s arts and cultural nonprofits … have sizable economic impacts on their communities and the state as a whole. Through their purchases of equipment, materials and services, rental and mortgage payments, and spending by their employees and contractors, they generate a total of $8.6 billion in sales, $3.6 billion in labor income and a total of 71,000 FTE jobs, generating average full-time earnings of $50,000 per FTE. By sector, indirect and induced jobs are spread widely. Financial and business services, wholesale and retail trade, accommodation and food services, and health care account for the largest shares.”


If more state dollars are allocated to the arts, this impact will be multiplied. But it will unfortunately happen too late to save the SFMT’s 2013 summer show, so—get ready for it—here comes a shameless pitch:

If you’re one of the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s many fans, if you’ve enjoyed their shows but perhaps have put less than you could really afford in the hat, now’s your chance to make amends. Go to their website and give what you can, as soon as possible, because time is running out for the 2013 summer show.

Do it now.

You might use an hour’s pay as your target gift, or even pay for a day, week or month if you’re one of the lucky people who are still getting ahead despite the economy.

But also, on behalf of all the other worthy groups who also need your help, don’t forget to write to your local legislators, both assembly members and state senators, to ask them to bring the California Arts Council back to its former glory by supporting AB 580. Now more than ever, California needs all the benefits a flourishing arts environment can provide in abundance.