Today in Sacramento, the California Arts Council is doling out its much-sought-after and sometimes controversial grants to arts groups of assorted sizes throughout the state.
More than 600 organizations applied for the $6.49 million the council is distributing this year in organizational grants. Although the official numbers won't be made public until today, recommendations from the council's evaluation panels show that a handful of top grant recipients will get more than $250,000 each; others get as little as $1,500. More than 170 of the applicants are being sent away empty-handed.
There is no clear distribution pattern based on population. In Los Angeles County, for instance, 115 groups are getting almost $1.85 million, representing 28.5% of the council's total organizational grants budget. This is close to population figures: Los Angeles county contains 30.8% of the state residents.
On the other hand, the runaway money winner is San Francisco County, where 134 arts groups will receive $2.3 million. That's 36.5% of the arts council's organizational grants to an area where only 2.7% of California's populace lives.
Just how does the state decide who gets a check and who doesn't?
It's not just artistic quality, although council officials say that quality is always the prime consideration. Because the council is handing out public money, other factors such as multicultural appeal and community outreach programs also carry significant weight.
And who's to say that the council has drafted the most qualified people for its panels that evaluate each group's request and then rate it on a scale of 1 to 4?
They're not necessarily the most hallowed names in their respective fields, which prompts some complaints about the legitimacy of their decisions and ultimately the credibility of the ratings they bestow.
Last year, several organizations, including the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum and San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, unsuccessfully appealed to the council to restore cuts in their grants.
"There was a lot of what we felt was inaccuracy about us (in panel reports). Simply put, the wrong information was getting to the state," said Peter Shavitz, annual-fund director for the Old Globe, whose grants dropped from $115,000 in 1985 to $95,000 last year.
Officials at both the Old Globe and the Taper now feel the review system has improved significantly.
"There's a better exchange of information this year. We don't have the same breakdown (in communications) that occurred last year," said Stephen Albert, general manager of the Taper, whose grants had dropped from $214,000 in 1985 to $180,000 last year.
But complaints that the council's rankings are "extremely subjective" persist.
Earlier this month in Sacramento, Los Angeles Music Center Opera general director Peter Hemmings interrupted evaluation hearings to ask, "Who are those people?"
"What are the criteria for naming some of these panelists?" said Ami Porat, founder of the Mozart Camerata, a relatively young Orange County chamber group that did not apply for Arts Council funding for next year after being shut out of funds for 1986-87. "Have we some sort of objective decision-making process?"
Yes, argues Tere Romo, program manager for the council's organizational grants. "The panel members are all professionals, and so the organizations have peer reviews. It's not an arbitrary decision or a decision made in a vacuum. . . . It's a hard and complicated process," Romo said.
But because requests (totaling $14.7 million in 1987) far outweigh available money, complaints are frequently raised by groups that are turned down or that receive substantially less money than they requested. In turn, organizations that get more of what they came for--no applicants are funded at 100%--are predictably happier with the system.
"It (the system) has been controversial in some areas, and it has had its ups and downs," said Christine Fiedler, development director at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre. "Basically we're very pleased with the way the review system is working this year."
Furthermore, the image of regional favoritism in state grants seems to have subsided.
"At one time, yes, there was this obvious tilt to the traditional big areas, San Francisco and Los Angeles. But I think that's changed greatly," said David Emmes, producing artistic director of the Orange County-based South Coast Repertory Theatre and a former Arts Council panelist.
Besides, as most arts administrators point out, the state's ranking methodology is the only game in town.
There is, however, a conflict-of-interest issue that is begged by a rating system that draws many of its evaluation panelists from the same groups that are vying for grants.