Outside consultant recommends that parks department get into the arts business. Where does that leave the Fresno Arts Council?
In what seems likely to generate another Measure P controversy, consultants helping kick-start the initiative are recommending the Fresno parks department create a division “dedicated to expanding citywide arts and culture” as part of the city’s “organizational structure.” Already, one Fresno City Council member calls it “an extremely bad idea.”
“We quite frankly don’t have the muscle for this and we don’t have the history or competence either,” said Council Member Miguel Arias. “I mean it’s hard enough for us to keep grass green and irrigation systems operational in our parks. I don’t believe we’re equipped to delve into the world of arts and culture.”
Related stories: A DEEP DIVE ON THE MEASURE P FUNDING PROCESS: IS THE FRESNO CITY COUNCIL MICROMANAGING?
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
The consultants make the recommendation in a 67–page draft Cultural Arts Plan scheduled for public release on Monday, May 15. The Munro Review obtained an early copy of the draft plan.
Measure P lays out no role for an arts division in the parks department, and it’s unclear at this time how the recommendation ended up in the draft plan. The consultants – Network for Culture and Arts Policy with offices in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Denver – did not answer direct questions from The Munro Review about whether a member of the public, an artist, a city employee or someone else suggested adding an arts division to parks department responsibilities during a wide-ranging survey of the community. The Network for Cultural and Arts Policy began its work in May 2022 and is being paid $150,000, according to the parks department.
If Arias’ comments are an indication of what’s to come, it would be the second time this year that the role of the parks department in Measure P funding of the arts has led to a dispute. An earlier controversy involved the Fresno Arts Council, and it’s still unresolved.
City Manager Georgeanne White – who oversees the parks department – said in a statement in response to a query that she, too, has “concerns” about the recommendation, but she did not elaborate. Arias had plenty to say, though.
“So this feels – for some of the people in the arts and culture organizations – like a money grab and a duplication,” he said of the recommendation. Non-government organizations like the Fresno Arts Council already have expertise in arts and culture, Arias says. But with an arts division, the parks department could bill Measure P for employees who work on the initiative but have other responsibilities, as well. It’s the “natural inclination” of governmental agencies to look for such “pots of money,” he said.
Arias predicts the recommendation “won’t survive” scrutiny by the Fresno City Council, which has final say over the Cultural Arts Plan. The city must adopt a final plan before it can spend Measure P money on the arts.
The draft plan – which makes 31 other recommendations – will get its first public airing on Monday, May 15, at a meeting of the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission, an advisory and oversight body established by Measure P. The meeting will take place in Council Chambers at Fresno City Hall beginning at 5:30 p.m.
Many of the 31 other recommendations in five categories could draw consensus support. For example, in the “Celebrate & Enhance” category, the draft plan recommends incorporating arts, culture and creativity into the city’s transportation system. And in the “Barriers, Innovate & Expand” category, the plan recommends developing and maintaining an online cultural hub where the public can access an events calendar.
The public can comment on the draft Cultural Arts Plan beginning May 15 and continuing until June 5. “If the community does not support a recommendation in the draft plan, they should submit a comment during the public review process,” City Manager White said. She will make her own recommendations to the City Council about the draft plan following the comment period.
This essential-but-little-noticed work of municipal government is about fulfilling the promise of Measure P, which 52% of Fresno voters supported in 2018 to improve the city’s quality of life by boosting arts, culture and parks through a 30-year sales tax increase. Millions of dollars are on the table. As much as $10 million in grants could be available to local nonprofit arts organizations in the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2023, according to one estimate. Under Measure P’s funding formula, arts and culture get 12% of the money generated every year by the initiative, while most of the other 88% benefits city parks.
The question of who would lead the process of awarding grants from the 12% became a dispute earlier this year. It began in February when parks director Aaron Aguirre emailed Lilia Gonzáles Chávez, executive director of the Arts Council, that the city would manage and administer Measure P arts funding. Some people saw this as a behind-the-scenes power grab since Measure P states that arts grants “shall be implemented” by the Fresno Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission “in partnership” with the Fresno Arts Council. The dispute led more than two dozen people – including major players in the Fresno arts community – to speak out in support of the Arts Council at a March meeting. At that time, City Manager White told The Munro Review that the Arts Council would have “a lot more than minimum” involvement in administering Measure P. But a contractual agreement spelling out the Arts Council’s role has not been finalized yet by the city.
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Gonzáles Chávez said she first submitted a draft of an agreement to the city in the fall of 2022. “We’re really encouraging the city to sign an agreement quickly so we can set up the grants process and be ready as soon as the Cultural Plan is adopted.” The draft plan makes several references to the Fresno Arts Council, including that it should pursue state grants to host additional workshops for nonprofit leaders and artists. Gonzáles Chávez takes exception, saying: “That assumes that we don’t already do that, but we do.”
People in the arts community are questioning the slow pace of Measure P clearing its administrative hurdles. “Local arts organizations are incredibly frustrated that the process of creating the Cultural Arts Plan and rolling out the arts grant program under Measure P is taking so long,” said Stephen Wilson, president and chief executive officer of the Fresno Philharmonic. “The Measure P arts funding is urgently needed as arts organizations are still struggling to emerge from the COVID pandemic.”
Meanwhile, Arias said he plans to bring a resolution to the City Council on May 25 outlining and clarifying the roles of the parks department, the Arts Council and the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission in administering Measure P. Already, Arias said, he’s talked with officials in the parks department about why they want an arts division. They’ve said they could honor public requests for activities like guitar and dancing lessons in the city’s community centers, but Arias is not persuaded. “We [the city] don’t have a history of hiring diverse personnel, and we certainly don’t have a history of hiring artists and culture directors. I believe we’re better off focusing on what we do well, which is to maintain [city facilities] in pristine conditions so the public can utilize them” for programming by arts and culture organizations. Arias said the parks department – which already maintains 1,500 acres of open space and also provides services to youth and senior citizens – should focus on ensuring that the Measure P arts money is spent correctly.
In another important conversation, Arias said that he, City Council President Tyler Maxwell and Council Member Annalisa Perea have talked with the authors of Measure P. “The administration [at City Hall] was adamantly opposed to Measure P, including the mayor. But we’re trying to ensure that the intent of the authors when they drafted Measure P – and what the voters approved when they voted for Measure P – is actually honored,” Arias said.
Doug Hoagland is a freelance writer in Fresno. He spent 40 years working at Valley papers, including 30 years at The Fresno Bee. The first play he saw was a 1968 production of “Show Boat” at McLane High School.
FRESNO CULTURAL ARTS PLAN: PDF VERSION
FRESNO CULTURAL ARTS PLAN: QR CODE