Art of the Matter

Marin Cultural Association creates a roadmap for local arts community—but who will pay for it?

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Projects like this mosaic created by Youth in Arts is one of many by arts groups in Marin County vying for funds.

“The arts are not a charity, we’re an economic driver. We want to make that message loud and clear.”

So stated Gabriella Calicchio, director of the Marin Cultural Association, within the first several seconds of a high-energy town hall-style meeting April 2 at the Marin Center in San Rafael. The packed gathering was held to celebrate the recently completed first draft of the long anticipated “Arts and Cultural Master Plan,” and also to collect first-hand feedback on the plan.

Exuberantly titled “Arts Culture Action Marin!” the current 42-page plan is the result of two-plus years of work by the Marin Cultural Association and stands as an ambitious blueprint/roadmap that could have a profound impact on the future of Marin’s vibrant artistic community.

Pointing to a graph showing the influx of $76 million annually for Marin County—monies created mainly through arts-related jobs, arts-based commerce and the resulting tourism to the area—she described the new master plan as a game-changer.

“This plan is the beginning of a whole new way of thinking about and talking about the arts in the county,” said Calicchio.

How much weight the plan will ultimately have, and whether it will be worth the effort, is to be determined. The Marin County Board of Supervisors votes on the plan next month, and if it’s adopted—as it is expected to be—there will still be a number of major questions, namely: where will the money come from?

Those questions were on hundreds of lips as the meeting commenced and though spirits were high, the mood was a conspicuous balance of optimism and desperation. Currently, the plan stands as a kind of mysterious holy grail that may be the solution to everyone’s problems, but might just be a fancy way of framing and categorizing the many needs currently facing Marin County’s arts community.

The document (available at MarinCultural.org) was developed under the leadership of Calicchio with contributions from numerous local arts leaders, supporters and outside consultants. The grant-supported report cost $130,000.

Attending the town hall meeting were a who’s who of Marin’s art world: representatives of the Marin Symphony, Marin Theatre Company, the Mountain Play Association, Osher Marin Jewish Community Center, Marin Arts, Marin Open Studios, Actors Equity Association, local schools, arts and recreation departments, and numerous individual artists and arts supporters.

Calicchio’s opening remarks set the tone for a wide-ranging, two-hour discussion during which the talk rarely strayed from Calicchio’s underlying point: that Marin’s nonprofit arts community deserves to be thought of as a vital contributor to the county’s overall economy.

But without clear steps toward raising funds in support of the plan’s far-reaching goals, how useful is it? Calicchio suggested a potential arts tax, or perhaps a percent-for-art ordinance requiring developers to contribute a fraction of new building costs toward an arts fund.

Calicchio suggested it’s high time the county found new ways to support the arts.

“We have more artists per capita than any other county besides L.A., but there has never been a dedicated funding source for the arts in this county,” she said.

“Our public feedback indicates that a large percentage of Marin County residents would support a tax to pay for the arts,” said David Plettner-Sanders, managing partner for The Cultural Planning Group, a San Diego-based consultancy firm that worked on the plan. “So do know that your community is behind you.”

So what, exactly, is in the plan? And are there any clear ideas in the thing that can quickly deliver the goods to an arts community desperate for cash? The actual “plan” boils down to just a six-page list of strategies formed around three distinct, but vague goals.

The first goal, for example, is to cultivate and advance Marin as “an arts and cultural center.” The second is to ensure that Marin’s arts are “by and for everyone,” which seems to address a need for more diversity within the arts and those who have access to arts programs. The third goal is to sustain and grow Marin’s arts resources.

As for how such goals will be addressed, each one comes with a list of proposed strategies, but no clear path to implementation.

Under goal No. 1 (cultivating Marin as an arts center), the strategies include “supporting the advancement of Marin’s artistic identity,” while another suggests promoting an “awareness of, participation in, and support for Marin’s Arts and Culture.”

The four strategies accompanying goal No. 3—focusing on growing Marin’s arts resources—are essentially a breakdown of demographic groups (nonprofits, individual artists) and their needs (more space for arts, and more funding), with a loosely stated aim of increasing such funding for Marin’s arts community.

One attendee expressed concern that the plan did not include a commitment to working with trade unions in the county.

Another wants an end to legal restrictions on billboards and murals.

Another gentleman expressed alarm that shut-in veterans were not specifically named as part of those underserved communities mentioned in Goal No. 2.

But nearly everyone in the room had something strong to say about the lack of local money for the arts. The impression given was of an infinite number of Robin Hoods, eager to serve their targeted communities, all competing for the same small sack of gold.

“It’s a good beginning, a positive start,” said Bruce Burtch, a San Rafael-based arts consultant and the founder of the Marin Youth Poster Contest. “But there are a plethora of arts opportunities in this county,” he continued, referencing the numerous performances, classes, competitions and other programs that often struggle to find actual participants.

As for how the Art and Culture Master Plan will fit into solving such issues, the plan’s creators say it will be one step at a time. And the next step, according to Calicchio, is to take the comments collected at the meeting, combine them with public feedback generated through Marin Cultural’s website and then develop a definitive implementation plan. That document will be voted on by the Board of Supervisors May 14. Assuming they vote in support of the plan, a public launch party will then be held sometime in September.

Then, of course, the real work begins.

And clearly, a big part of that work—and the underlying dream buried in the vagueness and uncertainty of this master plan—will be in finding a way for Marin County to dig deep, get creative, and start paying for the big, vibrant, very hungry local arts scene the community so frequently claims to value.

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