Mai Nguyen Do: City arts funding inadequate in Santa Clarita

Sculpture entitled "Western Tiger Swallowtail Yerba Santa" in Oct. 2016, created from recycled materials Signal file photo.
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Santa Clarita carries the potential to cultivate a thriving local arts scene. However, Santa Clarita remains significantly behind in funding arts grants which often provide crucial financial stability to smaller arts organizations and projects. The section of the Arts Master Plan that outlines increases in arts grant funding does include an anticipated incremental increase in the arts grant budget to $144,000, but does not specify a timeframe for when that goal should be reached.

The reality of arts grants funding in Santa Clarita is bleak. Since the Arts Master Plan’s release over two years ago, annual arts grant funding continues to be deficient and is awarded to the same handful of well-established, traditional arts organizations, perpetuating the stagnant local arts environment that has persisted for decades.

The release of the Arts Master Plan in early 2016 had me – and many other young community members – rather excited. While romance novel writers and watercolor painters have always been common in Santa Clarita, paperback Harlequins and landscape paintings are not necessarily art pieces that are always attractive to or engage young people. I was eager to see what vibrant change would come to Santa Clarita with the implementation of the Arts Master Plan.

The results have been underwhelming and disappointing. The allocation of grants for art programs has been a particular source of frustration; the City of Santa Clarita spends as much to help fund local arts programs and projects as it does on two parking spots in the newly-built parking structure in Old Town Newhall. For the price of one new parking spot in the Old Town Newhall structure, the City of Santa Clarita could award four arts grants at $10,000 each.

Calculations using data from 2016 demonstrate that the City of Santa Clarita is being outspent by the City of Pasadena on arts grants funding. The City of Pasadena, with a similar budget once its municipally-run utilities are subtracted from the total amount, awards approximately $158,000 annually in arts grants. In contrast, the City of Santa Clarita awarded $66,630 in arts grants in 2016, $90,000 in 2017, and $63,731 this year – 0.0267% of the 2015-16 Audited Budget, 0.0447% of the 2016-17 Unaudited Budget, and 0.0309% of the 2017-18 Adopted Budget. Pasadena has approximately 40,000 fewer residents than Santa Clarita, which means that despite having a smaller population, Pasadena spent $1.11 per resident on arts grants funding compared to Santa Clarita, which spent less than $0.04 on arts grants funding per resident in 2016. That’s more than 27 times the amount of arts grants funding per resident.

A closer examination of how the grants are awarded yields further disappointment. With the launch of the Arts Master Plan in February 2016, the City of Santa Clarita awarded $66,350 in grants to 13 arts organizations. In 2017, $20,240 out of the $90,000 – less than a fourth – of the year’s arts organizations grants went to organizations that had not previously received funding from the City of Santa Clarita in 2016. Less than 8% of funding for the 2018 year went to an organization which had not previously received municipal arts grants.

The addition of the Arts Organization Capacity Subcategory into the list of grant awardees elongates the list of organizations that receive grants each year, but does not increase the amount allocated to funding these grants. The elongated list also continues to include the same grant recipients, often ones that have already been in operation form many years and involve traditionally Western art forms. As the list grows longer and the arts grants budget remains the same, grants inevitably include less money and newer organizations which have not yet received municipal arts grants face competition with established organizations that receive grants annually.

The vision statement framing the Arts Master Plan – which states that “the City of Santa Clarita will be recognized as a ‘city of the arts,’ where the lives of residents, artists, and visitors are enriched through artistic and cultural experiences” – cannot be realized should the city continue to provide grants to the same handful of arts organizations every year to perpetuate a manufactured perception of the city as a cultural hub. It also cannot be realized through block parties with themes lifted from a party store catalogue or by almost exclusively promoting artists of similar genres and backgrounds. If the city wants to develop a burgeoning local arts scene, it needs to invest accordingly. The City of Santa Clarita’s Arts Master Plan is not one to be proud of. The numbers prove that it is no more than a poorly constructed deception.

Mai Nguyen Do is a poet, researcher and lifelong Saugus resident.

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