What does a new employee do when Mayor Bob Filner sets an “ambitious agenda” for her post? I met with Denise Montgomery, the incoming head of the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture, to find out.

She is taking the helm of an organization that’s only had one leader, Victoria Hamilton, since it was started in the 1980s. It’s been a powerful agency, allocating hotel-room taxes to organizations and festivals based on their size, impact and audience, and directing the city’s public art collection.

The City Council agreed last year to aggressively increase the commission’s funding over the next five years, but Filner’s first budget didn’t meet the target for the first year. He increased funding over last year’s budget by $1.6 million — still far short of the $3.7 million addition called for in the Penny for the Arts plan.

Montgomery seemed unfazed a few weeks before taking her post on June 12. She has some ideas up her sleeve about pushing for more free neighborhood concerts and events, and mapping out the city’s cultural assets. She thinks the city could be home to the biggest Dia del Niño, a celebration of children that originated in Mexico, in the United States.

Montgomery’s been in San Diego for several years. She previously ran arts programs for the city of Denver and a Colorado business group. Here, she worked marketing for the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and as a consultant for other institutions. She’s wrapping up a national report for the Wallace Foundation about how to improve after-school programs for low-income kids. Her husband works in biotech, and the couple knows many people who don’t know much about San Diego’s arts scene.

She hopes to change that.

What led you back to consider something in government again?

It’s this specific mayor. It’s pretty rare in the spectrum of elected leaders to have someone like Mayor Filner. Numerous times, I’ve seen him speak without any notes or talking points about the role of arts and culture in community and society and life, with conviction and with understanding. To me, that’s somebody that I’m really happy to have the opportunity to work for.

Mayor Filner recognizes that arts and culture is an important industry, an important employer, a big draw for tourism. But he goes way beyond that to talk about arts and our humanity, arts and youth. To me, again, that’s really inspiring. I think he has a shared sensibility that is compatible with the arts. In the arts, people are always pushing the boundary artistically, technologically and really doing what might have seemed impossible or really hard. And Mayor Filner’s like that, too, I think in a lot of areas, and in the arts. That sense of possibility. To me, that’s really exciting.

He talked about “an ambitious agenda” for you, right? And also that you would “ratchet things up.” How do you understand that charge?

I think he’s looking to connect more people in the community with arts and culture. To enhance the image of San Diego outside of San Diego, so that people understand this is a community and a city that is thriving in terms of really vibrant cultural landscape.

Part of effective branding is differentiating. So rather than every city in the U.S. saying, “We’re really great in arts and culture,” which doesn’t say that much — Austin is a great example, they’ve put a stake in the ground and said, “We’re the capital of live music.” Mayor Filner wants to raise awareness of San Diego as a center for American theater, as a place of extensive binational collaboration, in lots of areas including arts and culture. That, I think, lifts up everyone and helps everyone, because it’s really highlighting some of the unique aspects of our cultural community.

Many organizations have enjoyed a fairly consistent stream of revenue in the city’s grant programs. It hasn’t been as easy to get in if you’re newer to the game. Do you want to shake that up at all, in terms of bringing new organizations in to the process?

At this moment, I don’t foresee a radical change. But I haven’t started yet and looked at all that. One thing that is going to happen is taking that process online. It’ll make things less time-consuming and easier.

I think to grow the money that’s there is really important. There’s a plan to do that, the Penny for the Arts Blueprint. The mayor has shown his support in this last budget cycle. My experience has been that one of the most important ways to expand the impact of an agency like this is through partnerships and collaborations.

The mayor’s support is a real door-opener. That’s part of the allure of the job for me.

Now, Penny for the Arts got funded, but hasn’t been fully funded in the first year, right? Do you anticipate a fight going forward?

The arts and culture community going forward is wonderful about being organized and making the case for public funding for the arts and for the contributions of the arts to the community. I guess I wouldn’t characterize it as a fight, but more of a collaboration, a try-to-get-there, because I really think that everyone wants to get there.

It was Mayor Filner that was behind the increase in funding in a really tough budget cycle. That’s walking the (walk) and demonstrating that commitment.

But he didn’t quite make it to the level that was outlined in the first year of the blueprint.

He pushed hard to get to where we are, which is an increase. So, in that environment, where there are so many needs, this is a win. I think this arts community has been savvy, too, in understanding some of those dynamics. It could have been a cut or it could have been flat.

The mayor’s saying, “Let’s not say ‘Penny for the Arts.’ Let’s say ‘Millions for the Arts.’” He’s indicated a desire to increase funding for arts and culture organizations. We know that that’s a huge need.

In Portland, they passed an arts education tax. … So maybe something that would fund arts education and science education, or maybe something that would fund arts education and some of the deferred maintenance in Balboa Park. People really love Balboa Park and have an understanding of some of the needs there.

So an actual tax then, maybe? Some kind of new revenue?

Well, he’s indicated a desire to find new funding sources. Maybe that’s for (the city of) San Diego, maybe that’s for the region, but I’d love to pursue something like that long-term in service to his vision and to the community. Because the result is that you’ll have more kids experiencing arts education.

A meeting last year got confusing because kids from Central Elementary danced for the City Council to support the passage of Penny for the Arts, but then it was emphasized there’s been a rule in commission funding against funding school arts instruction. Do you see the commission’s programs including arts education?

Obviously we have to implement the (hotel-room tax) funds as mandated. So aside from that, yes, finding ways to support arts education is a part of the vision.

Here we have a mayor with this wonderful level of support for the arts, a City Council with bipartisan support for arts and culture, a new superintendent who’s seen the positive effects of arts programs with her students, a San Diego Unified school board that’s really supportive, so all these pieces are here to move forward.

Creating awareness of what’s here is going to help everyone do their work better, smarter, stronger. That can include not only who’s working in the arts. There’s the BOOST Collaborative, it’s the Best Out Of School Time Collaborative. Their offices are a couple doors down from the Casbah, and they are working nationally on how to have effective out-of-school-time programs. I don’t think that many people in the arts community know that they’re there, but people in the arts community are working actively in the realm of after-school.

Here’s a question from Twitter: Does the San Diego Museum of Art have enough space? Would you push for them to expand in Balboa Park?

I don’t think I’m the decider on that. I believe that the museum is hoping to expand, which would be wonderful for the community.

But would you play an advocate role in the museum expanding its footprint?

I don’t know. I think partnering with the leadership in Balboa Park, at the Conservancy, that’s something I’m really looking forward to doing, because Balboa Park is so important. I’m really struck by the sense of community there, too.

How should the city foster individual artists, not just larger institutions and festivals?

I want artists and creative people, and I know the mayor does, to feel that they can make their career here. Part of that is financial, that there are adequate opportunities, and part of that is community. Are there like-minded people here? Is there energy and inspiration? Can people find the creative juice they need? I think that’s all here. So being a connector and bringing people together.

Our “Create Denver” initiative had a revolving loan fund. Sometimes the difference between an organization surviving or a business being able to purchase equipment they need and getting to the next place is a $10,000 loan or some kind of loan. Tools like that.

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

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