Proposed grant guidelines go before city commission for a decision that could have a major fiscal impact on Fresno arts organizations
By Doug Hoagland
UPDATED 9:30 p.m. Sept. 25: The Fresno Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission voted on Sept. 25 to continue consideration of draft guidelines for Measure P arts grants until its meeting on Oct. 16. The Commission wants to give the public more time to comment on the guidelines.
In a major step toward getting Measure P money into the hands of nonprofit arts organizations, a proposal for how to divide at least $5 million into grants is poised for public review and official approval.
The process is scheduled to begin at the 5:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 25, meeting of the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission. But in a preemptive move, larger arts organizations in Fresno are calling for a time out. “We are going to ask that this agenda be postponed by a month so we have a chance for a discussion with the [Fresno] Arts Council and arts commissioners,” said Michele Ellis Pracy, executive director and chief curator of the Fresno Art Museum. Pracy said she and others are “for the most part” pleased with draft guidelines made public on Friday, Sept. 22, and they are grateful for the work behind them. But, she added, “There are some points that we would like to further discuss.” Pracy did not elaborate about those “points” in a statement released to The Munro Review on Sunday, Sept. 24.
It appears that larger arts and cultural organizations oppose a funding formula in the draft grant guidelines because, as now proposed, the formula would limit what they could get in operational support from Measure P. Operational expenses include rent, utilities and staff salaries.
The funding formula would allow a nonprofit organization with an annual operating income of less than $50,000 to apply for a grant up to 50% of that income, while an organization with annual income of $801,000 or more could apply for a grant up to 15% of its income. Using that formula, the Art Museum – with a budget of $1.1 million – would be eligible for no more than $165,000 in operational support. Grants to organizations in the 15% category would be capped at $250,000. For example, without the cap, the Fresno Philharmonic Orchestra – with a budget of $1.8 million – could get $270,000 if it received the full 15%. (There are two other tiers; organizations with incomes of $51,000 to $250,000 could apply for up to 25% of their incomes; $251,000 to $800,000 could apply for up to 20%.)
The Fresno Philharmonic declined to comment.
There is potential for friction between larger, more established arts organizations – which suffered financially through Covid and have been hoping for substantial infusions of Measure P funding to stabilize their finances – and smaller, newer organizations that are attracted to the promise of funding. It is unclear whether the Measure P funding pool will be able to satisfy both groups.
If debate over the grant guidelines becomes contentious, it would be another controversy in the roll out of Measure P, a 3/8-cent sales tax in the City of Fresno that voters approved in 2018. Over a 30-year period, the measure will raise millions of dollars, with 88% going to parks and 12% to arts. A legal battle followed the election, and then earlier this year controversies erupted in the arts community over proposals for the city’s parks department to run the grants program rather than the Fresno Arts Council and for an arts division to be created in the parks department. Both proposals eventually died.
Now the focus turns to awarding $5 million in arts grants, and the amount could increase to $9.5 million because of money that has accrued since Measure P passed. In August the Fresno City Council allocated $9.5 million for grants, and the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission will get to decide whether to award the additional $4.5 million or roll it over to the next year.
The process has reached this point because the arts subcommittee of the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission spent August and September developing the draft grant guidelines. The full Commission will now consider the guidelines, and the Fresno City Council is scheduled to vote on the guidelines on Oct. 5. An application period is tentatively scheduled from November 2023 to January 2024 for operational grants, followed by an adjudication process, with grants tentatively scheduled to be awarded in April 2024. Grants will be awarded every year during the life of Measure P.
As the city’s larger arts organizations attempt to make their case on the grant guidelines, the city’s smaller, up-and-coming arts organizations could be encouraged that they have a place at the funding table. Like many larger organizations, they could apply for operational grants as well as grants for specific projects. The draft guidelines propose that project grants range from $2,000 to $200,000, which could be used to pay artists’ fees, project supplies, materials and equipment, venue costs and technical expenses. The timetable for awarding project grants will occur later in 2024.
One influential advocate for smaller organizations has already spoken to the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission. Hugo Morales, founder and executive director of Radio Bilingüe, the National Latino Public Radio Network, said that arts funding initiatives in Fresno before Measure P left out organizations led by people of color. “The guidelines will be critical,” Morales said, adding that Fresno’s diverse communities cannot be ignored again.
In an interview before the guidelines were released, Lilia Gonzáles Chávez, executive director of the Fresno Arts Council and a member of the subcommittee that developed the guidelines, said Measure P’s Cultural Arts Plan must be followed. It states that underserved communities in Fresno need greater access to the arts. Smaller organizations trying to serve those ethnic communities may not have financial resources, which is why the guidelines allow them to apply for grants that equal a bigger percentage of their income, she said.
Gonzáles Chávez added: “Some people think, ‘Yes, that’s good.’ Other people think, ‘Oh no, you can’t give those smaller organizations that much money. They don’t know how to handle it, plus they don’t have the need that larger organizations have.’ So there are always going to be different opinions, but our goal is to respond to the Cultural Plan and provide access [to the arts] to those who have not had access.”
She added it’s not “either/or” when considering the needs of larger and smaller organizations. “It’s how do we support everyone so that our arts community grows and is stable,” she said.
The Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission will meet at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 25, at Fresno City Hall.
Donald Munro contributed to this report.