The arts and culture infantry that shows up whenever the city of San Diego’s leaders consider cutting public funding for arts is likely just over that next hill.

Councilman Carl DeMaio has proposed some of the most dramatic cuts to the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture since its founding in 1988.

The big news in DeMaio’s plan to solve the city’s long-running financial troubles has been about what city workers’ retirement benefits. But the plan also breaks down DeMaio’s goals for cuts in departments across the city — including arts and culture — so that core services like police and fire can be protected.

The plan calls for a 25 percent reduction in the grants the city gives 111 nonprofit arts organizations for an estimated savings of more than $1.5 million. The city’s current-year budget for arts and culture designates $6.2 million for the grant programs, which comes from a hotel-room tax.

The number of city staff running the program would also be cut. By reducing city staff to one executive director and one administrative aide, DeMaio expects to cut four fulltime city jobs from the payroll, and save $330,017 from a $832,680 budget.

If history’s any guide, the city’s arts organizations won’t take such cuts without fighting.

The city’s arts and culture commission director, Victoria Hamilton, didn’t return my calls today. But I did talk last Wednesday with Felicia Shaw, director of arts and culture at the San Diego Foundation. Before she crossed over to the philanthropy side, Shaw had worked for 17 years at the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture, helping to manage the grant program.

Shaw said DeMaio’s proposed cuts, in keeping with the rest of his financial plan, are “fairly severe.” She anticipated the arts community will fight against dramatic changes.

But the severity of the city’s circumstances might mean the arts lobby has to find a different way to fight than it has before.

A frequent talking point for supporters of city funding for the arts grants is that the city’s theaters, art museums and performing organizations bring in visitors and create jobs. A report produced last year by the commission estimated the arts organizations stimulate the economy by sparking more than $181 million in salaries and other expenditures.

But such pushes have been made to city elected officials in “an economy that was a little kinder,” Shaw said.

“We know those arguments. They know those arguments,” she said. “How will those arguments stand up?”

It’s also unclear whether the philanthropists would or could pick up the slack.

Shaw said there’s a “very active and very robust” support among private groups and funders to support local arts organizations. But many established organizations are used to applying for and receiving grants from the city every year, which might not be such a given under DeMaio’s proposal.

“Whether they would be able to fill the gap left by the loss of these funds that are a consistent source of revenue for these organizations is yet to be seen,” Shaw said. “This is a huge unknown. I’m not even sure right now the extent of understanding of this proposal.”

DeMaio spokesman Jeff Powell said in a statement that the cuts to arts and culture are “appropriate and necessary” at a time of cuts to services like police and fire. His statement underscores that the city could bring back the funding within five years if the rest of the plan is more successful than DeMaio’s team conservatively expects.

I asked if they’ve heard any protests to the cuts or received any pushback.

“Given the serious nature of the city’s financial crisis and the threats to cuts in core services, we have not had any pushback and have actually received a large amount of support,” the statement reads.

Shaw said she can see that DeMaio is trying to be comprehensive in his proposal, and to make a case that “there are no sacred cows.” There is some merit to the idea that every department contributes to the solution, but the amount of money that would be saved in this cut is insignificant to fixing the city’s problems, she said.

“The city’s financial situation is really serious,” Shaw said. “But the solution to the problem, we don’t believe, can be found in cutting support to the arts.”

(The proposed cuts to arts and culture come on page 37 of this PDF.)

I’m the arts editor for VOSD. Have an idea for something I should write about San Diego’s arts scene? Please contact me directly at or 619.325.0531. You can also follow me on Twitter: @kellyrbennett.

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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