San Diego Museum of Man in Balboa Park
The San Diego Museum of Us in Balboa Park / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

It’s been nearly a year since our lives had to suddenly shrink to fit within the walls of our homes, and we were forced to forgo so much of what we enjoy in life in the name of keeping ourselves, our families and our communities safe.

As we eagerly await vaccination, we try not to think about how much of what we cherished in our old lives won’t be waiting for us. For too many of us, it’s the loved ones taken by the virus. But there is also the favorite restaurant or shop that didn’t survive. Or the connections we made around the water cooler at work that gave way to permanent telecommuting.

We hope the economy will bounce back quickly when we are able to settle into a new normal, but the city’s budget, unfortunately, will not. The city’s primary revenue sources — local sales tax and hotel room taxes paid by tourists — plummeted during the pandemic. This means San Diegans could face a year of steep cuts to library hours and park programs, even slower pothole repairs and other cuts to services.

San Diego’s already struggling arts and culture organizations are bracing for news that the city plans to further slash the grants that enable us to provide free and reduced-cost enrichment to the community. Yet this is just a relatively tiny investment the city makes each year in over 130 arts and culture nonprofits that always delivers outsize returns in neighborhood enhancement, civic pride, educational outcomes and overall quality of life in our city. These cuts would come on top of the 44 percent reduction we were already dealt this fiscal year, which started July 1.

The grant program has been so successful that it was singled out in 2012 for dedicated funding levels from the portion of hotel taxes that are set aside, per the municipal code, for promotion of the city. This so-called Penny for the Arts funding commitment has never actually been fully met, although a majority of Council members say they support it and want to achieve the funding goals. Yet somehow, every year the city stumbles into a funding squeeze for one reason or another, and the promise is broken yet again.

But even with our steep budget deficit, this year holds promise for a different outcome — not just for arts and culture funding, but to communicate our values as a city more clearly through our budget than ever before. Now is the time.

We have a new mayor, and the majority of our City Council is newly seated — all but one holding public office for the first time ever. All of these new officials are thoughtful and community-minded leaders able to bring a fresh perspective on how the city should deploy its funds, unencumbered by notions of “the way we’ve always done it.”

Meanwhile, the long-overdue racial justice reckoning of the summer caused many in our community to stop and think about public safety spending, and why it is that American cities dedicate so much of their budgets to policing social ills. It’s unfortunate that the conversation centered on what seems like an extreme, punitive slogan, “Defund the Police,” rather than what we should be asking for: Fund the city we aspire to be.

San Diego has an opportunity to show what we believe will keep our neighborhoods safe and thriving. And we know that fostering equity and inclusion, celebrating our shared humanity, and supporting our kids’ education and enrichment are the best paths to the quality of life we desire. It’s clear that we should be investing in a strong sense of community and the belief that life holds opportunities for our children. Arts and culture support these aspirations.

The pandemic has strained many of our nonprofit arts and culture organizations to the breaking point financially. At the same time, it has revealed them to be more important than we consciously acknowledged before. Who among us wouldn’t trade just about anything for the opportunity to watch a play, attend a neighborhood festival or see a child’s eyes light up with learning about the world in one of our beloved museums?

We urge the mayor and City Council to take a constructive rather than reductive approach to the budget in this difficult year. Instead of asking, “What must we cut?” let’s think about what we want to preserve and grow. Let’s be bold and unapologetic about our priorities and values and how we think we achieve them. Let’s be honest about what’s worked to make San Diegans’ lives better — and what hasn’t.

If we seize this opportunity to rethink how local government can support the safety and well-being of every community, San Diego will finally start living up to its promise as a great city for all. This is our time. Let’s shine brighter than ever before.

Felicia Shaw is executive director of Women’s Museum of California. Makeda Cheatom is founder and executive director of WorldBeat Cultural Center. Micah Parzen is chief executive officer of the Museum of Us and president of the board of the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership.

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