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SF Grants for the Arts

If you attend a San Francisco concert this month and the administration staff seems frazzled, it it most likely because they are recovering from preparing their annual San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund/Grants for the Arts application, due on February 10th.

The program, which has been around since 1961, was a pioneering model of government funding for the arts, and it remains a reason why San Francisco has a disproportionately high level of arts offerings in the region. The funding is protected by city charter (which can be amended  by majority vote at any time) protecting arts from political assaults. The program gets several things right: it provides grants for operating funding rather than program funding and it does not provide more than 15% of an organization’s budget, meaning organizations do not collapse when their funding is cut (a common problem with the all-but-defunct California Arts Council).

The San Francisco program is not without its weaknesses, so here they are:

  • It is not a regional program. Several arts organizations have located their offices in San Francisco in order to qualify for city funding even though the bulk of their operations are elsewhere in the Bay Area. This, in turn, disqualifies them from other local funding sources such as the Buck Trust in Marin even when they program concerts in Marin. In short, Bay Area arts funding lacks regional planning.
  • It favors established organizations at the expense of artistic innovation by emerging ensembles.
  • It provides no mechanism to support individual performing artists and visionary personalities.
  • It does not address regional needs for performance, storage, and rehearsal facilities.
  • It provides no discounts for city services. For organizations renting city facilities (such as the War Memorial, the Yerba Buena Center, and street festivals), the city effectively ends up funding itself.

In spite of these weaknesses, the city’s program is commendable and well-run. There’s a reason why the Oberlin Dance Collective is not located in Oberlin.