Grants for the Arts, On A Mission

By Julie Potter

October 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

When Theatre Flamenco, Hawaiian dance company Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu, and Beach Blanket Babylon descend on City Hall October 7 for a festive installment of the Rotunda Dance Series, they’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the City’s Grants for the Arts (GFTA), a program of the Hotel Tax Fund, which uses tourism tax dollars to support arts organizations that attract visitors to San Francisco. “We really consider ourselves an economic investment in the City’s ability to attract visitors and put the widest variety of cultural activities in front of them when we get them here, and we expect a return on that investment. We get an extraordinary return in the form of so many different kinds of activities reaching so many people, and it shows in San Francisco’s national and worldwide reputation,” says GFTA Director Kary Schulman. The Rotunda Dance Series in particular showcases the region’s rich diversity and creativity through free public performances presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West, in partnership with San Francisco Grants for the Arts and San Francisco City Hall.

50 Years of San Francisco Arts and Tourism
When asked about the program’s long history, which pre-dates the National Endowment for the Arts, Schulman adds, “We just show up everyday and do what we do.” She has been showing up for 30 years leading GFTA and after the confetti of the 50th anniversary settles, she and the GFTA staff continue their mission. “Any changes at GFTA are slow, organic and integral. We have more organizations now than we used to, we have refined our funding strategy as a progressive relationship to the organizations budget. It’s been a matter of refinement of the mission but continuing that mission to be an ongoing dependable source of long-term funding.”

“People think of us as being an arts funder primarily, and while that is our activity, that’s not really the mission of this agency,” says Khan Wong, Senior Program Manager who is guiding the October 7 festivities. With the tagline, “Promoting the city by supporting the arts,” GFTA’s main mission, boosting tourism, is driven when the groups they fund leverage grant support to employ people and inject dollars into the local economy. Tourism is San Francisco’s number one industry. The celebration on October 7 will convey the richness of what GFTA has done over the years and share the culture that has been enhanced with the space and resources to thrive. The noontime performance on October 7 in the City Hall Rotunda will be followed by a public reception.

Crunching the numbers of the 2010-11 fiscal year, general operating support grants totaling $9,348,129 were distributed to 217 organizations in the areas of dance, civic activities, literary arts, media, multi-arts, parades, theater and visual arts from GTFA. That general operating support was leveraged by grantees to support 6,112 jobs and economic activity totaling $453,887,437. GFTA resists moving in new directions because feedback from the constituency reflects the value of ongoing general operating support that is consistent, stable and dependable. By providing operating support, GFTA aims to make it possible for the widest variety of arts organizations to flourish, which attracts visitors to the city. San Francisco consistently ranks among the top three cities for cultural tourists (meaning that arts and culture were the primary reasons for destination choice), and those who live here know that San Francisco boasts a much richer arts scene than other larger cities. With a population similar to Indianapolis, the per capita amount of cultural activity in San Francisco far surpasses other places in the U.S.

“We provide this incredible banquet of activity and then its up to the visitor to choose. Many visitors don’t go to any arts activities at all, particularly the first time visitor who might go to Golden Gate Park, ride cable cars and go to Alcatraz. Then the next time they come back they need to do something else…so we make it attractive for people to keep returning to San Francisco because there’s always something going on,” explains Schulman.

The Ethnic Dance Festival, the largest event of its kind in North America, was actually created by Grants for the Arts. During the ’70s certain cultural dance companies embedded in San Francisco communities did not give many public performances or have 501c3s, so GFTA sought to support these talented groups that were not a part of the regular granting process. The city had acquired several cultural centers–the Mission Cultural Center, the Chinese Cultural Center and the center now called the African American Art and Culture Complex. Beginning in 1978, these served as venues for the events. The festival eventually shifted to proscenium spaces because most cultural centers weren’t equipped for large scale, professionally produced activity. In 1982, following an RFP process, the contract to produce the festival was awarded to World Arts West, then known as City Celebration, so the festival would no longer be produced out of a government office.

Changing Times, An Enduring Mission
“In 1961 we got more of the collection [of the hotel tax], but with the hotel tax over the years, more and more city entities have gotten a slice of the pie,” says Schulman, adding “With the economic downturn, the general fund has been more needy and the city’s other needs have taken precedent.” Even so, while many cities have a hotel tax, it’s unusual for the tax to support the arts, and among those funds that do go to the arts, general operating support is very rare. While there hasn’t been a change in GFTA’s mission, Wong notes, “One thing that’s changed related to the budget is that back when we had more money we’d be able to take a gamble on new emergent companies and that’s less true now. It’s difficult because we’ve seen some really strong up-and-coming groups.”

Renee Hayes, GFTA Associate Director, stresses the importance of maintaining the agency’s core mission and being as transparent as possible to keep the field informed of resources available, especially in times of diminished budgets. Her advice to arts organizations: “Seek diverse sources of income to make sure you have a good ratio of earned and contributed revenue, cultivate individual donors as well as city funding, and perhaps foundation funding. The more diverse the income streams are the healthier the organization is bound to be.”

“Resist mission drift, resist the temptation to change your programming and do something that’s not really integral to the mission of your organization solely for the purpose of attracting a grant. Being really grounded and aware of what the mission is and sticking to it, is really important,” adds Wong. Schulman also encourages arts organizations to take advantage of the opportunities offered by new technologies to get the word out and support one’s activities.

Additionally, the leadership at Grants for the Arts notes how the boundaries have become permeable between the nonprofit arts and commercial arts. “San Francisco is a real mecca for people doing new and different kinds of arts forms and not adopting the 501c3 model. That’s something I’d like us to think about more in the future, how we can support those kinds of activities. Young people coming along are not saying ‘Oh, I want to create a 501c3 nonprofit…'” Schulman notes. GFTA works with some fiscally sponsored groups, but acknowledges there is no perfect fiscal sponsor model that really serves the sponsored organization and allows the sponsor to be accountable for the organization.

Connecting with the Community
“Every year we have two public meetings with the arts community,” Hayes says. “I’ve been here fourteen years and never cease to be amazed at the continuing passion and creativity of the people in San Francisco arts.” Schulman agrees that the meeting is a service that gets a lot of people in the same room talking not only to GFTA and the advisory committee, but really talking to one another. She notes how matches and collaborations have emerged from the gathering and how after a couple of years weathering the economic downturn, the arts community is pulling out of the doldrums. “The most recent meeting was so enlivening. It was as if people said, ‘Ok this is the new normal, but we’re not defeated, we’re moving forward.'” And GFTA shares that forward motion, promoting the city by supporting the arts. Onward.

Celebrating the City’s Grants for the Arts 50th anniversary, a free performance in the City Hall Rotunda featuring Theatre Flamenco, Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu, and cast members of Beach Blanket Babylon will be held at noon on Friday, October 7, followed by a public reception in the North Light Court.

This article appeared in the October 2011 issue of In Dance.

Julie Potter is a public practice specialist, performance curator and writer based in San Francisco. As the Director of ODC Theater, she provides artistic and administrative leadership including season programming, artist residencies and public engagement. Potter was previously the Creative Ecosystem Senior Program Manager at YBCA and completed her M.A. in 2016 at Wesleyan’s Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance.