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Pay to Paint: S.F. Street Artists' Perfect Circle of Fees 

Wednesday, Aug 22 2012

In 2003, San Francisco street artists paid $374 a year for a license to sell their handiwork on approved city streets. That fee — which helps fund the Street Artist Program's $260,000 annual budget — is now $664, and the artists themselves are never exactly sure where the money goes. A grand jury report released earlier this month claims to have found the primary cause of this sharp price hike: Howard Lazar, Street Artist Program's director, bills the artists for the time he and his staff spend getting legal advice on how to avoid giving the artists the details of the SAP's budget. The jury called this "violations of the Sunshine Ordinances" and warned that SAP's practices were "unfair" and could possibly have "a chilling effect on complaints against city staff."

The report tells only part of the story, though. The rest is even stranger.

The SAP, established by under the Arts Commission in 1972, is a self-sustaining entity. Participants pay yearly certificate fees to cover all expenses — from their director's salary to the application paperwork. This is why public records requests are particularly valuable for street artists. Each personal fee is directly tied to the budget's efficiency.

From 1972 to 1984, fees were frozen at $80. Then they began to increase, to pay for staff salary raises and a tighter screening process to keep peddlers from getting street artist certificates.

Some of the 400 artists certified each year have grown suspicious of where that cash gets doled under Lazar. Photographer Michael Addari asserts that although fees have increased, services haven't: He still sees peddlers posing as artists, and claims that Lazar doesn't adequately represent the program's interests before the Arts Commission.

This suspicion manifested as an avalanche of public records requests. In 2011, street artists filed 52 of them, a chunk that represents nearly half the total fielded by the commission. Lazar says that his team dedicated 117 hours to Sunshine Ordinance work in 2011. Many of those hours included meetings with the City Attorney's office, to ensure "compliance with the law and making sure we are not disclosing private information that may be related to personnel matters or anything that might be deemed client/attorney privilege," says Kate Patterson, a spokesperson for the Arts Commission.

In the most recent fiscal year, the program spent more than $20,000 on legal services, a majority of which involved public records requests. While the City Attorney's office provides around 280 hours of complimentary legal coverage for the commission, the deal excludes programs that are self-funded through license fees (as opposed to the general fund).

The result is an expensive cycle: The fee-based nature of the program drives street artists to follow the money, which causes them to lose money because of the fee-based nature of the program, which further drives them to follow the money, and so on.

About The Author

Albert Samaha


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