In the two months since Bill Lee replaced Rudy Nothenberg as the city's chief administrative officer (CAO) and became the first person of color to hold the powerful post, anxiety and rising temperatures have sparked meetings, memos, parties, and counterparties as the arts community has tried to gain Lee's ear -- and, most important, his sympathies.
The reason: Lee, the former director of Toxics, Health, and Safety Services at the Department of Public Health, is now responsible for, among myriad other tasks, overseeing Grants for the Arts (GFTA), a city office with a $9.3 million budget fed by the Hotel Tax Fund. This fiscal year, GFTA distributed $8.5 million to 178 arts groups and cultural events, from the San Francisco Symphony ($808,500 grant winner) to Samoan Flag Day ($10,100 winner).
And Lee's arrival brings the promise of what many hope will be a creative thaw from the eight-year reign of Nothenberg, whose closed-door decisions tended to favor pricey European art for the tutu and tuxedo set -- "works from dead white males," as one observer puts it.
"Bill Lee has a reputation as someone who is very sensitive to the needs of the neighborhoods," says Mike Housh, aide to Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who shares the arts community's long-standing concern that multicultural, gay and lesbian, and small arts groups in general are passed over in favor of the "Big Six": the San Francisco Symphony, S.F. Opera, S.F. Ballet, the Museum of Modern Art, American Conservatory Theater, and the Exploratorium (winners of $3.36 million plus more than $5 million for building maintenance at Davies Symphony Hall and the War Memorial Opera House).
"My take on things," says Housh, "is that Bill Lee wants grants to the arts to be as equitably dispersed as possible. But this is a whole new field for him, and I would think it would be awhile before he forms his policies."
Which is where all the lobbying comes in.
"We need to educate our elected and civic officials about the impact that arts have on the city of San Francisco," said Brenda Berlin, vice president of the Arts Democratic Club, at a wine and Calistoga water reception for Lee held last week at the Center for African and African-American Art and Culture (arts grant: $90,000).
Lee, the man everyone wants to help mold, listened attentively at a table in front of 60 arts leaders, activists, and visiting politicians, including mayoral hopeful Roberta Achtenberg and Supervisor Barbara Kaufman. The routine was becoming familiar: Just the week before, he'd attended a similar if more contented party thrown by artists calling themselves "Friends of Grants for the Arts" (for the most part pleased with the status quo, their main goal was to ask Lee to end the three-year freeze on arts-grant increases and the freeze-out of all groups who hadn't previously been awarded money).
"The arts employ one out of six workers in this city," Berlin now told Lee and the crowd. "We are in danger of losing more than $5 million in National Endowment for the Arts funding, which will impact mostly smaller agencies and people of color who don't have the ability to withstand cuts that the larger organizations do. We're really up against it."
Then came the anger.
When whites need someone to bless the soil for a groundbreaking ceremony, "it's, 'Let's call an American Indian,' " said Michael Smith, a member of the Sioux tribe and president of the 20-year-old American Indian Film Festival (arts grant: $8,500). "But when money becomes available, who do these same Europeans forget? Unless we attach some white Ph.D. to the project, we don't get funded, or the money goes to Anglo organizations that are doing something about Indians," said Smith, whose calm fury had some in the audience bowing their heads in shame.
"What we're asking for is democratization of the culture of this city," summed up Ellen Gavin, executive and artistic director of Brava! for Women in the Arts (arts grant: $15,800).
Lee tried and for the most part failed to soothe feelings. He said he was committed to cost-effective, open government and increased diversity. But when it comes to arts funding, he conceded, "This is frankly one area that policy-makers look at when they know they need to make a cut." Lee said he was considering increasing the money allotted to the city's five cultural centers. But since the arts are funded through the Hotel Tax, he said his most pressing work was to make sure, particularly by supporting sports teams, that tourists continue to flood into the city to their current tune of $4 billion a year.
The Big Six and other large arts institutions are making progress toward meeting affirmative-action goals, Lee added. "The bottom line," Lee said, "is that the most money goes to the most people or that money goes to the places with the most attendance."
But that opinion, the audience protested, doesn't reflect cultural reality: Affirmative-action hires don't make the symphony any more accessible to people who can't afford $140-to-$1,600 season tickets. "Besides, an Indian powwow from my perspective is the same as a Beethoven symphony, and it draws thousands of people," said artist Duane Big Eagle. "When can I expect a fairer pattern of distribution? How do we get beyond the Eurocentric view of the arts?"
Arts consultant and grant writer Jeff Jones -- perhaps GFTA's staunchest critic -- calls the city's grants process "institutionalized discrimination."
"The funding pattern for seven years has demonstrated no change," says Jones, a fund-raiser for multicultural and "small art" groups. While whites currently comprise 46 percent of San Francisco's population, "About 87 percent of the funding goes to white groups and only 13 percent goes to lesbians, gays, women, and people of color," Jones says.
Jones also takes umbrage at how the GFTA awards grants: Director Kary Schulman, her staff, and a hand-picked citizens' advisory panel choose the winners behind closed doors. The recommendations are forwarded to the CAO, who has final say. This, instead of a more public process or a review panel chaired by accomplished artists.
"As long as the decisions made by Grants for the Arts are totally bureaucratic and people of color are nowhere near the table, we're going to have constant warfare here," says Jones. "I do not anticipate stopping the fight until these policies are changed."
Schulman disputes Jones' claims -- as she has done for so long, the very mention of them makes her shrug and look to the ceiling as if praying to an overhead light for help. "We fund organizations that range from the smallest to the largest, in every discipline and ethnicity -- there is no one more interested than Grants for the Arts in serving the broadest possible spectrum of organizations," says Schulman, who also attended last week's Bill Lee reception. "The six largest groups are responsible for more than 70 percent of the arts and economic activity in the city," explaining why they get the lion's share of the funding, she says. The goal of her office, she adds, "has always been to stabilize and maintain the arts," which is why it doesn't favor peer review panels, which can be capricious, giving funds to certain groups one year and nixing them the next.
Schulman says she monitors cultural diversity at the "majors" (though when asked for precise breakdowns regarding hiring at the Big Six she says her office doesn't have any, and when contacted, the GFTA's affirmative action consultant declines to provide data). According to GFTA figures forwarded to Bill Lee, however, the percentage of people of color on boards of directors and staffs of the Big Six has increased since 1990 from 3 percent to 14 percent and 13 percent to 23 percent, respectively.
Jones snorts when he hears the numbers. Like Schulman, he's memorized the other side's arguments, which he says have barely changed -- and have never been accurate -- since he and arts marketing consultant Russell Cramer in 1988 wrote their first of four reports showing how Big White Art creates a large sucking sound in the world of funding. The first report alleged discrimination on the boards and staffs of major arts organizations; the second charged discrimination in city funding; the third was titled "Grants for the Arts: A Bureaucracy Beyond Reform"; and the fourth spelled out how, between 1988 and 1992, the GFTA budget grew by $1 million but funding to multicultural groups increased by only 0.2 percent, and funding for lesbian and gay arts groups increased by only 0.1 percent.
The reports, and the 1990 bankruptcy of the multicultural fiasco Festival 2000, led the Board of Supervisors to create a Cultural Affairs Task Force, which in turn spawned the city's Cultural Equity Endowment, a $1.1 million fund -- overseen by the Art Commission, not GFTA -- that specifically supports multicultural arts.
But for Jones, it's not enough. Today, he is adding to his quiver of complaints against GFTA the barb that the office keeps a "slush fund" of $500,000 or more in order to disperse additional money -- without any review or application process -- to its friends. For the fiscal year 1994-95, for example, GFTA had $9.3 million and gave out $8.5 million in grants, leaving more than $700,000 in leftovers for "ongoing special projects," "overhead and office expenses," and an "unanticipated events fund." The leftovers helped pay for the United Nation's 50th-year celebration, for parade insurance, staff salaries, and banners in Union Square, among many other things, Schulman says. But the leftovers also helped pay for such things as a $20,000 grant for Fleet Week, headed by Jack Immendorf, who was treasurer of Mayor Frank Jordan's 1991 campaign.
Other GFTA budget oddities: The Golden Gate Park Band, purveyor of John Philip Souza music, was granted $105,500, almost double the allotment for the Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day Parade ($54,000). In fact, the Souza band beat out all but nine of the 178 city grant-getters, reaping nearly two times more money than five literary arts groups combined, and 20 times more than a number of dance, music, and theater groups.
It is this type of thing that drives Jones up a canvas.
"If you're the ruling class, they love you, they're out with their slush fund," Jones says. "What do they fund? The U.N. 50 celebration, with events like Marilyn Horne at the opera. There's no citizen review here even though we're talking about taxpayer money; these people are just granted money outright."
"There's no slush fund," responds Schulman, exasperated. "I have no slush fund -- what can I tell you?"
What Schulman can tell you is that there is good news: The Board of Supervisors last week voted to change the way it allocates Hotel Tax funds to GFTA, providing enough of an increase so that the cap on grant awards can be lifted and new arts groups will once again be able to apply for first-time funds.
But the bad news, counters Jones, is that Bill Lee has his work cut out for him.
"He has inherited a position that is the most problematic inside city government," Jones says. "Because it's based on a set of values that went out in the 1950s.