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When 17-year-old Carla Chehadah and her 12-year-old sister Christine fled the war in Syria with their parents in 2012, they left their cello and violin behind. They didn’t play music for over two years while the family sheltered in Jordon. When they settled in San Diego in 2014, they immediately found a place to return to music at San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory. Landing in a city with rich cultural resources and diverse arts organizations guaranteed the sisters could find a familiar anchor in music even as they adjusted to being in a new country, enrolling in American schools and mastering English.
San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory is able to provide music education to the Chehadeh sisters and hundreds of other young people because of the support it receives from the city of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture. The organization is one of hundreds of arts and culture nonprofits that connect San Diego citizens to their heritage, creative potential and the power of aesthetic beauty. It can do this because of the strong and stable commitment the city of San Diego has made to arts and culture for decades.
When the city of San Diego began collecting its first hotel tax in the mid-‘60s, it designated the funds be used for special promotions of the city. Arts and culture have long been recognized as a core component of the city’s efforts to draw tourists. That is because cultural tourists stay longer and spend more money per day. Whether it is to the cultural density in Balboa Park and Liberty Station or the neighborhood festivals produced throughout the city, San Diego draws more visitors because of its rich offerings. Overall, San Diego’s hotel tax has increased every year since the recession in 2008.
This week, the San Diego City Council is considering whether to uphold the policies that guide city funding for arts and culture or unravel the progress that has been made to fulfill them. This is most starkly identified in the independent budget analyst’s report about the current budget proposal from Mayor Kevin Faulconer. The report indicates the proposal to cut funding for arts and culture by $4.7 million, or 31 percent, will mean arts and culture funding as a percentage of the hotel tax drops below the 2012 level, when the City Council adopted its Penny for the Arts blueprint, a plan that set out to give 9.5 percent of the hotel tax to arts funding by 2017.
The mayor’s proposed cuts to arts funding run contrary to the accumulated evidence that using funds collected from visitors who stay in hotels for arts and culture is an investment that delivers multiple returns to the city in addition to contributing to the total hotel tax dollars.
Arts and culture organizations are reaching into every neighborhood with programming that enriches everyday life. In-school arts education programs like the Arts for Learning partnership with San Diego Unified School District bring creativity into the classroom for thousands of low-income children. Trolley Dances by Jean Isaac San Diego Dance Theater takes dance performances into public spaces and onto public transportation so residents experience world-class performances in their own neighborhood and on their own travel routes. The Old Globe is bringing playwriting workshops into community centers and jails, while Playwrights Project does the same with youth in juvenile detention. The Fleet Science Center coordinates 52 Weeks of Science in Barrio Logan with a consortium of 56 nonprofits and businesses to give people free access to everything from astronomy to zoology. These and every other San Diego arts and culture organization produce community programs while simultaneously hosting thousands of professional performances and exhibits.
Funding from the city is the bedrock upon which all of this youth- and community-focused work stands. Because these programs don’t generate ticket sales or tuition, they are all at risk of shrinking or being eliminated under the proposed budget. At a time when equity and access are priority issues in every sector, this budget will undermine the ability of San Diego’s arts and culture sector to address these critical challenges.
I understand that the city must make cuts this year. I don’t understand why nearly 20 percent of the overall cut is coming from the arts and culture budget. Such a drastic approach will force the elimination of jobs and the loss of specialized employees who combine mastery in their art, science or cultural field with an aptitude for working with diverse communities. Losing this valuable expertise and experience in our community will take years to rebuild. At a time when every city in the world is competing to nurture and retain people with 21st century skills, San Diego can’t afford to set itself back.
That isn’t the approach smart cities take. Smart cities are arts cities.
Dalouge Smith is the president and CEO San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory and member of the San Diego Regional Arts and Culture Coalition. Smith’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.