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Council Panel Settles Artistic Debate, Votes to Seek Grant

April 09, 1985|LANIE JONES | Times Staff Writer

In a small hearing room at City Hall on Monday, the San Diego arts community came unglued. Arts groups questioned each other's motives, and some claimed the others didn't represent the arts community.

When Robert Arnhym, executive director of COMBO, a private fund-raising group for local arts, asked fellow arts officials to try not to "feel as if we're competing with one another and trying to cut each others' throats," the officials listened politely, then attacked COMBO several minutes later.

At issue was whether COMBO should be designated the official city agency to apply for a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant by a May 1 deadline. If San Diego receives the $150,000 grant, it must be matched on a 2-1 basis with $300,000 of city funds over the next three years. COMBO, the 12-year-old Combined Arts and Education Council, which funds 82 San Diego arts groups, is the only nonprofit agency qualified to apply for the NEA grant.

But opponents of this effort--not only other arts groups but also the city manager's office--don't think it should do so because the city's 18-month-old Public Arts Advisory Board is still working on a long-range plan for local arts needs. Because that plan will not be finished until July, it is premature to seek funding and to commit three years of city money now, they argued.

In addition, some arts groups fear that COMBO may use the "city arts agency" designation for more than just the NEA grant. The city manager's report on the issue noted that the "three-year designation of COMBO as the 'official' arts agency of the city for NEA purposes may conflict with the council's ultimate decisions on organizational structure."

Further, local arts groups claimed COMBO does not adequately represent the city arts community. Ed Peters, chairman of the Public Arts Advisory Board, complained that "the COMBO proposal does not meet the needs of the arts community." And Madeleine Ingalls of the Coalition of Visual Artists said COMBO was interested in big-time performing arts--The Old Globe or Starlight Opera--and had treated her and other visual artists "as if we did not exist."

After an hour of testimony before the City Council Rules Committee, the result was clear. "We have a mess here. And all of us want to help the arts," Mayor Roger Hedgecock told fellow Rules Committee members.

But if council members disliked the bickering, they did not want to lose a major grant for San Diego.

Suggesting that the sparring parties "reflect how much we could help if we were all on the same side," Councilman Mike Gotch then suggested the city apply for the grant. By a 5-0 vote, his colleagues agreed.

"I think we ought to make a significant statement," Gotch said. "The revenues are there--and my goodness, I'll give up two traffic lights in my district to support this statement, the first definitive statement about what we're going to do for the arts."

Under COMBO's proposal, the $450,000 will go in part to create a central ticket booth (ARTSTIX) to sell, at a discount, about 400,000 extra tickets a year from local productions. Some money will create a center offering technical assistance to artists. And more than half will go to direct grants to artists and art groups, whether they are COMBO members or not.

Under a compromise worked out by Rules Committee members, artists or art groups must operate on less than $500,000 a year to be eligible for grants.

Initially a committee chosen by COMBO was to distribute the grants. But after being told that such a committee would create a conflict of interest, with COMBO running the committee and parceling grants out to COMBO members, the Rules Committee decided that the City Council would appoint the panelists from local artists, some city arts advisory board members and COMBO members.

Although the Rules Committee agreed to apply for the grant now, the council does not plan to set aside any matching funds until after its summer budget hearings. The full council still must approve COMBO as the city's agent for the NEA grant, probably within the next several weeks.

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