Advocates rally for Fresno Arts Council as Measure P skirmish with city continues


Major players in Fresno’s arts community poured into City Hall on Monday, Feb. 27, to speak passionately in support of the Fresno Arts Council playing a key role in implementing Measure P. Some speakers said they distrust City Hall officials to follow Measure P and allow the Arts Council to administer millions of dollars from the initiative that will soon flow to the arts community.

Pictured above: Chester Miszewicz attends the Monday Measure P meeting at Fresno City Hall. Photo: Doug Hoagland / The Munro Review

“There’s money here, and people want to control the money,” said Victor Chavez, a board member at Arte Americas, the Latino cultural arts center in downtown Fresno. “I’m concerned that either the city or the parks department want that [money] to be part of their fiefdom . . .” Speaking at Monday’s meeting of a Measure P citizens commission, Chavez urged commission members “not to let politicians, city bureaucrats or staff usurp your role in this process.”

It’s unclear whether such comments to the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission will mushroom into a wider controversy over a suggestion that the city – not the Fresno Arts Council  – would essentially take the lead on  the grants process. After hearing from more than two dozen speakers, some Commissioners questioned city staff about why the Commission is being left out of ongoing discussions between City Hall and the Arts Council. 

And: With at least $10 million in Measure P funding at stake, Fresno Arts Council worries it’s being frozen out of the grant process by City Hall

City Manager Georgeanne White – who stepped into those discussions after the city parks director sent a controversial email to the Arts Council – attended Monday’s meeting but did not speak. In an interview with the Munro Review after the meeting, White said the Arts Council will be deeply involved in a grants process to award the Measure P money, though details remain to be worked out. More than $10 million in grants to artists and nonprofit arts organizations could be awarded by the Fresno City Council in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Before Monday’s meeting, the Arts Council sent an email to supporters asking for a show of support for “remaining true” to Measure P’s intent. Many speakers who responded to that rallying cry cited the language of the initiative, which states that arts grants “shall be implemented” by the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission “in partnership” with the Fresno Arts Council. Measure P created the nine-member Commission to provide oversight and give the public a voice on how the initiative’s money is spent.


“It is unseemly and inappropriate – and perhaps unethical – given the language of Measure P” to deny the Arts Council a leadership role, said Francine Farber, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Fresno. City officials should acknowledge making “a misstep” and “do the right thing,” Farber said. That misstep seemed to occur when city parks director Aaron Aguirre sent Lilia Gonzáles Chávez, executive director of the Arts Council, an email early in February stating that the city – not the Arts Council – would manage the grants process. Supporters of the Arts Council saw that move as sidelining the Arts Council and violating the intent of Measure P. Kay Bertken, another member of the League of Women Voters, said bluntly that the language in Aguirre’s email “is in defiance of Measure P.”

Others who spoke in support of the Arts Council included leaders of Fresno’s major cultural institutions: 

• Vivian Velasco Paz, president of the board at Arte Americas.

• Gerald Palladino and Michele Ellis Pracy, board president and executive director/chief curator, respectively, of the Fresno Art Museum.

• Stephen Wilson, president and chief executive officer of the Fresno Philharmonic.

• NeFesha Ruth Yisrael, executive director of the African American Historical and Cultural Museum of the San Joaquin Valley. Her statement captured the consensus expressed by other speakers about the Arts Council. “I boldly say they are the only organization equipped to properly handle the funds available …”

Gonzáles Chávez said the Arts Council is eager to begin that work. “We are ready to step up and take on that responsibility and relieve parks staff of the cultural arts component. Cultural art is what we do,” she told the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission.

Of the 26 people who spoke about the Arts Council, only Lisa Flores offered what she said is “an unpopular opinion.” Alluding to the Arts Council support for the Measure P campaign in 2018, Flores said, “Just because you promoted it doesn’t mean you automatically get gifted the money for the administrative part of it. There is a process in dealing with taxpayer dollars.” Checks and balances are necessary, Flores said, though she added the Arts Council has expertise and should be involved in the grants process.

White, the city manager, said there’s no question that the Arts Council has artistic expertise and city officials do not. “As I stated to Lilia [in a meeting on Feb. 21] I agree 100% that the Arts Council is the entity that should be evaluating the grants proposals . . . I feel like I unequivocally said we do not have experience in the arts and creative realm.” And, White said in the interview, the Arts Council will do more than evaluate grants: “it’s going to be a lot more than a minimum” involvement. 

What still needs to be worked out are details of a contract agreement with the city that will pay the Arts Council for its work with Measure P. White said she wants to meet again with Gonzáles Chávez. White’s timeline: finalize the contract in the spring since arts grants might not be awarded until summer. “It’s not priority No. 1 for me. Let’s have another meeting in a couple of weeks and figure this all out.”  Gonzáles Chávez has said in the past it’s important to complete the agreement now so the Arts Council can adequately prepare and that a delay could push back when grants are available.

In any contract, the Fresno City Council will retain legal control of the Measure P funds. “Everybody is focused on the one section of Measure P that talks about arts and culture” and describes the partnership between the Arts Council and the Parks, Recreation Arts Commission, White said. “But nobody wants to go back and look at the main thing that says the City Council is ultimately responsible and authority over all the dollars. That is how the agreement will be written.”

The City Council is expected to receive a Cultural Arts Plan in May that identifies needs in the community and prioritizes investments in the arts. Once the City Council approves the plan, the grants process can begin.

At Monday’s meeting, White sat in the back of the Council Chamber as speaker after speaker criticized the city during a public comment period. Each speaker had up to three minutes to address the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission. The Commissioners did not respond, as is standard practice. If Commissioners had begun a dialogue on what they were hearing, White said, she probably would have addressed the Commission. 

In the closing minutes of the meeting, three Commissioners made a few comments. Francine Oputa asked if city staff could talk about the concerns raised by the supporters of the Arts Council. Senior Deputy City Attorney Kristi Costa said it would be “premature” to have that discussion now because of an “ongoing conversation” between city staff, the City Manager’s Office, the City Council and the Fresno Arts Council about their future relationship. Details won’t be presented to the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission until “finalized among all the stakeholders,” Costa said.

Oputa responded: “And by ‘finalized,’ do you mean when a decision is made, because the concerns seem to be about the decision that will be made. So will it come to us as ‘this is the way it’s going to be?’ ” Commissioner Jon Dohlin expressed the same idea: “So will the Commission have any input on this matter or are we just going to be advised of the outcome?”

Costa replied that contracts – such as the one being discussed with the Arts Council – would not require approval by the Commission before going to the City Council.

Commissioner Jose Leon Barraza pushed back. He said: “I just want to express my concern that there are matters of policy that may not necessarily be related to the specifics of a contract that this body should have some say as it pertains to compliance with the regulations of [Measure P]. That’s our job. So I hope we’re given an opportunity to have input before – not after – policy matters that relate to the implementation of Measure P are made.”


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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