Mayor Robert Garcia with Executive Director of the Long Beach Arts Council Griselda Suarez at the 2016 State of the Arts ceremony in September. Photo: Asia Morris
A proposed program that would use a fee assessed on new public capital improvement projects to finance investments in the arts was explored by the Long Beach City Council last night, resulting in the unanimous approval of city staff crafting legislation that could be in place as early as Spring 2017.
The Percent for the Arts program was first introduced by Mayor Robert Garcia during his state of the city address in January. Garcia noted that the idea had been previously visited under the leadership of past mayor Bob Foster, but it lacked the full support of the council and didn’t move forward. Last night’s unanimous vote to move forward in crafting the framework of program will go a long way toward realizing the mayor’s hope to restore funding to the arts community, something that had previously existed when the city had more resources.
“The key question that government I think should always ask itself is in the work we do, is are we doing the public good,” Garcia said. “And at the end of the day, government is in the business of doing the public good. That’s what the arts are all about.”
Under the proposed program, new capital improvement projects over $100,000 would be assessed as a one percent fee that would go toward funding art projects. There would be some some restrictions, though, so to not place undue burden on large developments. A cap of $500,000 would be placed on the program fee, meaning projects over $50 million would face a fee no greater than the max.
The option for public projects to include an art piece as an exemption from paying the fee is an option, so long as it meets city approval for being equivalent to the one percent threshold. Assistant City Manager Tom Modica explained that if the project were to occur in areas where the fee wouldn’t be subject to the general fund, the art installation would have to exist on that property.
“When the airport does a construction project, we could assess a one percent fee for the arts,” Modica said. “However, that money and that project and that benefit would all have to stay at the airport.”
If implemented, the program is expected to generate some $750,000 over the next three years. The percentage given to art would be derived from construction costs but exclude “soft” costs like architectural, engineering or permit costs. Separate of the fee, the Long Beach Convention Center has upped its event fee from $1 to $3 which it will put toward investing in arts at the convention center.
The breakdown for expenditures would give 40 percent of funds to public domain, 20 percent for small grants and capacity building and the remaining 40 percent to established art groups like the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Musical Theatre West, the Long Beach Playhouse and the International City Theatre to name a few.
Modica said the city already invests heavily in the arts and culture, pointing to the over $6 million the city budgeted this year for entities like the arts council, the Long Beach Museum of Art and the Long Beach Municipal Band.
But by proposing an administrative lever that triggers a revenue stream for the arts, the mayor hopes to push Long Beach in line with other cultural hubs that have similar investment programs. Garcia also instructed city staff to explore whether or not the city’s water departments and the Port of Long Beach (POLB) could also be drawn into the program, with each body also contributing a percent.
The proposal drew wide praise from the council and members of the community.
Third District Councilwoman Suzie Price said that art gives people “reason to live” as it draws in different segments of the city to share a common interest and respect of the things they’re experiencing. Vice Mayor Rex Richardson, a self-described thespian, lauded the effort but asked that communities be consulted before public art installations are placed and that an element of equity exist in how the funds are doled out once they’re collected.
“I just want to make sure we place an arts equity lens on that and we make sure that we’re not just investing in the same old folks but we’re encouraging new artists, new futures and encouraging people to see art as sort of a pathway into engaging with their communities,” Richardson said.
The program, which could be up and running as soon as Spring 2017, could stand to have a multitude of impacts, including the beatification of the city through murals and other pieces of art as well as the potential social benefits.
June Kaewsith, a local artist and advocate, said that art has the ability to lower the rate of violence in the city by helping keep kids off the streets and engaged in their communities in a positive way. She added that if the art to come is not strictly produced for enjoyment, especially for visitors, but is procured through a community process it has the potential to increase community building.
“Arts is such a huge means of violence prevention in our community,” Kaewsith said. “Being able to give young people the opportunity to reclaim their stories is so crucial. I may not be inspiring them to be artists or working actors when they grow up, but we’re instilling in them the confidence to be who they are and also claim their culture and identity.”
Kelly Lucera, the executive director of the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra said Tuesday night’s discussion was a starting point for a much larger conversation—namely, what these groups can do with all this new funding. She said that instead of dreaming of and fighting to keep their heads above water, the conversation can now revolve around how else they can reinvest in the community.
“It’s an opportunity for us to get together and talk about those extra dollars and how can we meet the needs of more children, be better educators and help invest in our town,” Lucera said.