Arts Commission Debates Sculpture Exhibition Funding

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From the first phase of the sculpture garden exhibition, Ray Katz's “Odyssey” looms over the Newport Beach Civic Center. On Wednesday, the Arts Commission discussed funding ideas for the third phase of the project. — Photo by Sara Hall ©
From the first phase of the sculpture garden exhibition, Ray Katz’s “Odyssey” looms over the Newport Beach Civic Center. On Wednesday, the Arts Commission discussed funding ideas for the third phase of the project.
— Photo by Sara Hall ©

There were more questions than answers about the third phase of the Civic Center Park sculpture exhibition during a special meeting of the Arts Commission on Wednesday.

The commission voted 5-1 to deny the staff’s recommended proposal to fund the project, which included accepting a $45,000 loan, the main point of contention between the commissioners. Vice Chair Lynn Selich dissented and Commissioner Judy Chang was absent.

“A loan… is a question mark,” said Arts Commission Chair Arlene Greer, “and how can we sign on to a question mark?”

Most of the commissioners agreed that a loan was not the best idea, saying that it sets a bad precedent and it’s bad business.

Going into debt to fund the project doesn’t make any sense, added Commissioner Michael Kerr.

The possibility that they may not raise enough to pay back the loan is too risky, agreed Commissioner Rita Goldberg. They need time to come up with a plan, she said.

“If we have the time, if we don’t have a gun to our heads, we can really reach out to members of the community,” Goldberg said.

But Vice Chair Lynn Selich argued that accepting the staff recommendation as written, including the loan, is the best option at this point. Council suggested finding private funding sources last year, she said, so they’ve had time to work out an alternate strategy and have failed to do so.

“We’re putting this gun to our own heads,” Selich retorted. “We’ve known about this and we could have planned for it.”

They got themselves into this less than ideal situation, Selich said. The commission needs to come up with a creative and strategic plan, she added.

In January, the Arts Commission had proposed that funding for the estimated $108,250 phase three project come from three sources: $35,000 from the funds transferred to the city from the dissolution of the Balboa Performing Arts Theatre Foundation; $10,000 from the Newport Beach Arts Foundation; and the remaining funds transferred from Visit Newport Beach for the purpose of supporting arts programming in the city.

The proposal was found to be “unacceptable” due to a lack of public engagement and because the Balboa Theatre money was a donation with the stipulation that it be used for performing arts, which the sculpture garden is not.

On Wednesday, staff presented a new possible proposal to the commission, which included the $45,000 loan, to be paid back by March 2017. The commission would also need to raise an additional $45,000 by the same deadline in order to fund phase four of the project. It included $10,000 from the NB Arts Foundation and the remaining funds filled by the Transient Occupancy Tax transferred from Visit Newport Beach.

Although the Arts Commission denied the proposal, several other ideas were discussed, including: Reaching out to the currently featured artists and extending their exhibition time while the commission comes up with a plan; asking for 60 to 90 days to come up with a new proposal to submit to the council; or a multiple-year phased plan that would gradually increase the percent of private funds.

Commissioners also directed staff and the ad hoc committee to meet with city staff and clarify a few points. They also hope to get more direction from the City Council.

“We are respectfully requesting some clarification so that we can submit proposals that are within their vision for arts in the city, but also within our capabilities,” Greer explained after the meeting. “We’re trying to find a balance between all of that.”

They need to work in good faith to meet the council’s requests, Selich emphasized.

Commissioners agreed that they want to follow the orders from the council, but they couldn’t agree on what exactly those orders are. They also agreed that the council wants the commission to find private funding sources, but were unclear on exactly how much.

“At this time no formal City Council policy has been established regarding the extent to which the sculpture garden or the arts in general should be funded with private funds,” according to the staff report.

The difficulty of fundraising for the arts was echoed by several audience members during public comment.

The council’s request for the commission isn’t very realistic, said Lila Crespin, a longtime volunteer with the Newport Beach Arts Foundation.

“I feel that you’re being handed a loaded gun and that you have not been taught to use it properly,” Crespin said.

Fundraising takes an “enormous” amount of time and effort, she explained, it’s a “tremendous burden.”

“I feel the council’s actions… are a slap in the face to those of us who think culture is important in our city,” Crespin said. “I’ve worked so long to see that the arts in Newport Beach are respected and to have them slapped down so bitterly and so unfairly is really hard to swallow.”

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