As Fresno Arts Council board member joins Measure P commission, the arts get a win
BY DOUG HOAGLAND
Fresno’s arts community – and the Fresno Arts Council, in particular – scored a victory of sorts this week in its ongoing struggle with City Hall over stalled Measure P funding for the arts.
The Fresno City Council approved Laura Ward – a member of the Fresno Arts Council board – to serve on the city’s Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission, a key panel in the rollout of Measure P. Ward could now advocate on the Commission for the Arts Council to play its intended Measure P role after months of controversy has called that into question.
Meanwhile, Lilia Gonzáles Chávez, executive director of the Arts Council, remains cautious about City Hall’s intentions. She said Ward’s appointment shows that City Hall is moving “in the right direction” and that it’s “a great opportunity to have someone familiar with the arts community on the Commission.” But, she added, she’s not ready to “go there” that City Hall is trying to address the suspicion and distrust in the arts community over City Hall’s handling of Measure P. The Munro Review asked city spokesperson Sontaya Rose whether Ward’s appointment is an attempt to repair that distrust, but she didn’t respond prior to publication of this article.
That distrust built for months and reached a flash point in May when a draft Cultural Arts Plan – prepared by city-hired outside consultants – recommended the city parks department create an arts division to expand citywide arts and culture. Measure P lays out no role for an arts division in the parks department. Some in the arts community saw the recommendation as a power grab to control the millions of dollars in arts grants available over the 30-year life of the initiative. Arts advocates also said such a move would violate Measure P, which says the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission in “partnership” with the Arts Council “shall” implement the grants to local nonprofit arts organizations. As much as $15 million is projected to be available for those grants in 2023-24.
“We still need to see, moving forward, what happens with the Cultural Plan,” Chávez said. The draft Cultural Arts Plan is currently under review and its recommendations could change before going to the Fresno City Council for final approval in August, a timeline that is months later than the city originally projected. No Measure P grants can be made until the plan is adopted.
Ward, the new appointee, steps into the controversy on Monday, June 26, when she attends her first meeting of the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission. The Mayor’s Office nominated Ward to take the place of Maiyer Vang, who resigned earlier this year. Ward, a Fresno attorney, has served on the board of the Arts Council for five years, including as interim president, but she is resigning to take her new position.
“It’s a really critical time for the Commission to have a member who participates with the arts and culture community,” she told The Munro Review. Ward assisted in writing the arts component of Measure P and helped collect signatures to put the initiative on the ballot in 2018, according to her Commission application. In that application, Ward said it would be an “honor” to serve on the Commission as it provides “thoughtful oversight to ensure that Measure P is carried out as envisioned” by its advocates and voters.
In addition to finalizing the Cultural Arts Plan, officials need to hammer out an agreement between the city and the Arts Council for the Arts Council to administer the Measure P grants program. City Manager Georgeanne White told The Munro Review that completing that agreement will become a priority now that the City Council has approved a $1.87 billion city budget for 2023-24. But Chávez said the Arts Council has been trying since late 2022 to finalize the agreement, and the lack of progress has contributed to her wariness about City Hall. “The fact that we haven’t yet received an agreement speaks to my caution regarding the administration’s good-faith efforts,” she said.
Related stories: OUTSIDE CONSULTANT RECOMMENDS THAT PARKS DEPARTMENT GET INTO THE ARTS BUSINESS. WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE THE FRESNO ARTS COUNCIL?
And: A DEEP DIVE ON THE MEASURE P FUNDING PROCESS: IS THE FRESNO CITY COUNCIL MICROMANAGING?
And: As 2 key arts supporters are bounced from the Measure P commission, Fresno arts leaders fight back
Meanwhile, Ward’s seating will return the nine-member Commission to full strength, but questions remain about the tenure of some of its members. Kimberly McCoy remains on the Commission after the Mayor’s Office told her she was being replaced because her term had expired. But she has not been reappointed. Commissioners Jose Leon Barraza and Jon Dohlin – whose terms expire July 1 – were renominated by the Mayor’s Office to continue serving but the Mayor’s Office pulled their names from consideration at the May 25 City Council meeting. Barraza told The Munro Review in early June that the Mayor’s Office continues to support his membership on the Commission, but he doesn’t know when his reappointment will come back to the City Council for a vote.
Furthermore, Barraza said in June that more Latinos are needed on the Commission to equitably represent Fresno’s demographics in which Latinos are 50% of the population. Barraza is currently the lone Latino on the Commission, and Ward’s appointment doesn’t change that. Barraza told The Munro Review that he has “faith” that as future openings occur the Mayor’s Office and City Council will select men and women from all ethnic groups with “particular attention” to addressing “the great underrepresentation” of Latinos and Latinas on the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission.
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.