With an ocean of taxpayer money available, Measure P arts funding is sure to raise competition and questions
By Doug Hoagland
In a major move toward fulfilling the promise of Measure P, the Fresno City Council has approved guidelines for how nonprofit arts organizations and individual artists can apply for grants funded by the initiative.
The City Council’s action – taken Nov. 16 – opens the way for interested parties to submit grant applications, which will then be reviewed and scored, with Measure P money awarded to successful applicants.
The Fresno Arts Council expects the application period to begin in late November and extend to early February. Money could be in the hands of organizations and artists by late June or early July, according to Lilia González Chávez, executive director of the Fresno Arts Council.
If that timetable holds, the first Measure P dollars will flow into the arts community almost six years after Fresno voters in 2018 approved the initiative, a 30-year, ⅜-cent sales tax increase. Over those 30 years, Measure P will raise millions of dollars, with 88% going to parks and 12% to arts. A legal battle followed the election – delaying the initiative’s implementation – and other controversies this year further slowed the process for arts funding..
“I am just excited we can take the next step,” González Chávez said after the City Council’s Nov. 16 approval. “We can begin working with the arts community to get [grant] applications in.”
González Chávez has worked for years to advance Measure P, and she is arguably the most well-versed person in the city about the initiative. In a question/answer interview conducted in several sessions before Nov. 16, The Munro Review asked her about several key areas:
• How – and why – individual artists will be able to get Measure P money.
• Why only about half of available Measure P funds might be spent in the upcoming first-round of grants.
• How Measure P proposes to give special consideration to “emerging” applicants.
• How in the allocation of Measure P money, equity is possible between new arts organizations needing a boost versus established organizations struggling to survive.
Individual artists getting a shot at the money
Q. When you read Measure P, it speaks about giving grants to nonprofit arts organizations, but not to individuals. Why are individuals now eligible for grants under the grant guidelines approved by the City Council?
A. An individual artist would not be eligible to apply for funds directly but could work with an eligible 501c3 nonprofit organization as that artist’s fiscal agent to create new works or present a performance. This process provides job opportunities for individual artists.
Q. Was it always intended that an individual artist would be able to get Measure P funds through a fiscal agent?
A. I’m not sure. I certainly thought that would be possible because other grant programs work like that.
Q. But I don’t find that language in the ordinance.
A. It’s not there; it just seems like a logical outcome. Individual artists need to be supported, and as we support nonprofit arts organizations, those organizations will need to work with individual artists.
Q. Why would an eligible 501c3 nonprofit want to act as a fiscal agent for an individual artist?
A. For many years the Fresno Arts Council served as a fiscal agent for individual artists as a service to the field. A nonprofit organization might choose to be a fiscal agent because they want to work with a particular artist or advance artists of a particular discipline.
Q. Do nonprofits get paid to be fiscal agents?
A. Most fiscal agents will charge 10% of a grant award. That will be the maximum allowed in agreements between nonprofit organizations and artists.
Q. Let’s take the visual arts, as an example. What eligible nonprofit organization could act as a fiscal sponsor for a visual artist? Are you operating on faith that these organizations are going to appear? Do any of these exist? Can you cite examples?
A. There are multiple organizations in our community that could be fiscal agents. Any established arts organization that has an efficient management structure and solid accounting system, could be a fiscal agent.
Q. Does an eligible nonprofit acting as a fiscal agent apply for grant money and then give the Measure P money to artists it has selected? Or does an artist with an idea for a project seek out an eligible nonprofit to act as fiscal agent before applying for a grant?
A. Both of those are possible. An organization may seek an individual artist to develop a project. You might have an organization like the Rogue Festival that wants to hire a visual artist to assist with its marketing. The Rogue would see a need, make a grant application, include the artist and the cost of contracting the artist, get a grant and then secure a specific artist.
Why not spend all the money?
Q. The Fresno Arts Council and the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission have $9.5 million to potentially award during the first round of grants in 2024. But there’s talk of only spending $5 million. Why?
A. The $5 million is the projected average that will be collected annually for the arts through Measure P. It is possible that we will grant $9.5 million in the first year. Until we get the applications we will not know how much is required to fund all eligible requests and begin to address the priorities of the Cultural Plan.
Q. You’ve spoken about nonprofit arts organizations with serious financial needs “hanging on by their fingertips.” Wouldn’t that argue for spending all or most of the $9.5 million in the first year of grants?
A. That is one argument among others. As I stated, until we receive the applications, we will not know how much will be expended in the first round of funding.
All things “emerging”
Q. Let’s talk about what’s called “emerging” categories in the grant guidelines going to the City Council. What does “emerging” mean in the context of the Measure P grants?
A: Emerging are organizations are those with under $50,000 in operating funds annually.
Q. The guidelines provide for “organization support grants” for emerging organizations. They could apply for a grant equal to 100% of their annual revenue. What are a couple of examples of organizations that might qualify for such a grant?
A: I am not sure because until we see their most recent tax reporting or financial statements I could not tell you. Some that come to mind include; Jazz Fresno, Asociacion de Pelota Mixteca, Fresno Folklore Society, The Woodward Shakespeare Festival.
Q. The grant guidelines also provide for another “emerging” category: project specific grants. Each grant in this category would not exceed $50,000. What would these grants be used for?
A. These grants are for specific project costs such as supplies, insurance, equipment, permits, venue costs and artist fees.
Q. Can you give a couple of examples?
A. An emerging organization may want to present a public performance or offer free voice lessons to neighborhood children and develop a choir.
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Q: Could arts and culture organizations apply for project grants?
Q. Why do the guidelines on “emerging” project grants state that applicants don’t need to have two years of fiscal history and/or two years of prior activity supporting and expanding access to the arts and culture programming? Wouldn’t those two years show the applicant is established and has some track record and therefore a foundation to expand access to the arts in Fresno?
A. The emerging organization category provides an opportunity for new groups to develop. The City of Fresno has gone years with no support for the arts. It is believed that many groups that did exist in the past have now gone away because of lack of financial support. The emerging category allows for the return of some of those as well as the opportunity for new ideas to surface that have never been introduced.
Q. Could individual artists apply for a project grant?
A. Consistent with the ordinance, all applications must come from non- profit organizations.
Q. Would an artist need to have a fiscal agent before she or he applied for a project grant?
Q. Let’s say a watercolor artist who paints for a hobby and has never exhibited or sold his/her work gets one of the “emerging” Measure P grants. Why should Fresno taxpayers through Measure P subsidize that person? Same goes for poets and novelists. Shouldn’t those people go through the same competitive process in the marketplace that artists have struggled through for hundreds of years?
A. Fresno taxpayers would not subsidize that person with Measure P funds. The emerging category still requires that the applicant demonstrate some revenue from the sale or presentation of their work with some demonstration of an established practice and are required to apply with a fiscal agent.
Q. I’m confused. On the one hand you’ve developed an emerging category where applicants seeking grants for specific projects don’t need two years of fiscal history and/or two years of expanding arts access. Then you say an emerging applicant must have generated revenue by selling his or her art or demonstrated they have an established practice. That seems a contradiction: You have to show you’ve generated revenue by selling something, but if you’re an emerging artist, you may not have sold anything.
A. As an emerging artist, you would have some practice and basis to identify as an artist. It may not be two years of experience, but you will still need to demonstrate some knowledge, and examples of your artistic practice. It is also not possible to receive funds unless you have some demonstrated revenue or expenses to base your request on since the award will be up to 100% of your current project costs up to $50,000.
Q. Are you making a distinction between an emerging artist and an amateur artist?
A. No. I’m making a distinction between an artist and someone who has never been an artist and is now deciding that just because there are funds available that they’re going to be an artist. You have to have some history of practicing, preparation, education, training. Without that, your application might not be competitive.
Q. OK, say I do watercolors. I like to paint, but I’ve never sold anything. I’ve never displayed anywhere. I see there is Measure P money available and I say, ‘I want to get some of that money.’ From what you’re saying, that person might not have the best chance of getting a Measure P grant?
A. They might not.
Q. What safeguards are there to prevent an “emerging” applicant like that watercolor artist from receiving a grant and misusing the money? For example: what’s to keep that artist from using a Measure P grant to take a trip to France to check out the watercolors of Monet?
A. An emerging applicant must apply with a fiscal agent and the organization that sponsors them will have oversight of the proposed project. Applicants must demonstrate the merits of their project, its relevance to the Cultural plan, and how it serves the residents of the City of Fresno, in order to receive a positive score in the adjudication process.
Q. Right now, $1 million is set aside for grants in the “emerging” categories. That’s a heck of a lot of money for applicants with no or little presence in Fresno. Is that equitable to established organizations with demonstrated results like the African American Historical and Cultural Museum, Fresno Art Museum, Arte Americas and Fresno Philharmonic Orchestra?
A. Applicants with no presence in Fresno will not be eligible to apply. Equity is about lifting up those who have been disenfranchised or lacked opportunity. Yes, this is equitable.
Q. Are you and Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission feeling political pressure to give priority to uplift people who are not professional artists?
A. No. It is, however, the intent of the ordinance to expand the reach of the arts in Fresno and expand access to the arts to all. It also specifically calls out youth and underserved. This is not at the expense of established, well-known organizations but in concert with those organizations uplifting the entire arts community.
How do you ensure equity?
Q. It seems there are two fundamental ways to think of how Measure P funding could change the city’s arts scene. It could help raise the level of the arts in terms of quality and professionalism – make our museums better, expand the performing musical arts, promote the emergence of non-profit professional theater companies that offer real opportunities to working actors, provide new venues for visual artists. In other words, raise the cultural profile of the city in a way that attracts visitors, corporations and new residents. Or, Measure P could try to “spread the wealth” by dispersing grants to as many amateur artists that can be found. Isn’t there a much stronger argument in terms of “investment” for the former scenario?
A. Yes, and to my knowledge no one is suggesting the latter.
Q. But Lilia, The Munro Review went to the two stakeholder sessions last summer where individual artists wanted to know how they could get Measure P money. In your own words you want to lift up those who are disenfranchised or have been denied opportunity. By the very definition, those are amateurs.
A. That’s a huge value judgment, and I would say it is possible that some of the artists who will be funded could be called amateur, but the way an amateur becomes a professional is practicing his craft and gaining support for his work. Measure P could be the key to open that door.
Q. Throughout this entire process, no one seems to have mentioned an incredibly important component of a successful arts city: infrastructure. Fresno desperately needs a multi-theater space, for example, that could be used by performing groups, a building featuring a 100-seat theater, 200-seat theater, 400-seat theater, perhaps. Many other cities have such state-of-the-art facilities. One would certainly cost in the tens of millions of dollars. However, with Measure P generating more than $150 million in 30 years, a building like this could certainly be feasible. Why aren’t we talking about game-changing infrastructure?
A. I think we are. Over the life of the measure many ideas for infrastructure will emerge and it is my hope that we find a way to support that. In this first year with the 12% we intend to provide some stability to arts organizations and provide opportunities for the creation of new works and programs that align with the Cultural Plan. The guidelines will be reviewed annually and priorities for funding will change as we begin to address the priorities of the Cultural Plan. After five years the Cultural Plan will be renewed and new priorities will emerge. So much is possible.
Q. How did this all get so complicated?
A. These are public funds. That’s why it’s complicated. If we were an independent foundation, free to give money away to whoever we wanted, we could make the guidelines as minimal as we chose. But because these are public funds, there’s a need for accountability, and that’s why it’s complicated. It’s frustrating because the process is slow, but that’s the process.