SAN DIEGO — With this week's State of the City address, the arts in San Diego received a big boost from a mayor who, until recently, had shown relatively little personal or professional interest in promoting local culture.
Why did Mayor Maureen O'Connor designate 1988 the "year of the arts," proposing a monthlong Soviet arts festival, conversion of two public buildings into museums--one to hold an "international" collection of Dr. Seuss art--and increased government funding? How does O'Connor's new interest in the arts, often labeled elitist, square with her own populist image?
The mayor explained her position in an interview Wednesday, praising the intangible values of the arts to future and present generations and the pragmatic benefits of an arts festival to both business and the larger community.
"You cannot ignore the cultural arts aspect of a city," O'Connor said. "I think it's an enriching dimension that lasts, and it's a dimension that history will judge us by."
Describing herself as "not brilliant" when it comes to the arts, O'Connor observed that the arts in San Diego have not held a high priority on the City Council's agenda, but that regardless of an elected official's interest, part of the job requires representing all of the community including the arts.
"The arts world--geez--20 years ago when I was 21 . . . was just a flicker in everybody's eye. It was just starting to come of age. Now, through the local artists and our museums, we're coming onto the national scene and will be on the international scene. We're sending plays to Broadway, and we're having local artists shown in New York.
"I think that the government does have to reflect that back to the community. And the best way to do that is through the mayor's office. If the mayor has anything, it's the ability to communicate what San Diego is all about. I think we have to start being more supportive than we have in the past."
Inspired by Scottish Festival
O'Connor's support for the local arts scene began to flower in August while attending Edinburgh, Scotland's, annual music festival. One night as she listened to a performance by the Soviet Union's Bolshoi Symphony a thought struck her: "If they can put together this kind of talent--and not only the Soviets, but they had it from other parts of Europe as well--why can't we do this in San Diego?
"Their city was smaller in size. It's an older city. We have as much talent in San Diego as their community, and why can't we?"
That mayoral brainstorm quickly turned into action when O'Connor asked the two men sitting next to her what they thought about San Diego playing host to a Soviet arts festival. The men, the Soviet ambassador to Great Britain and the Soviet minister of culture, thought it was a dandy idea.
The populist side of O'Connor likes "the idea of being able to share another part of the world with the community of San Diego at large, that can't afford to go to Moscow and see the treasures of the Soviet Union. But we can bring those treasures to San Diego, and, in the end, we'll be educating the people of San Diego about another culture. Hopefully this will be the first of many (international arts festivals)."
Focusing on the arts is relatively new for O'Connor. In her first year in office, she concentrated on issues such as growth management and sewage disposal. But recently she has pushed for the expansion of staff and board members on a proposed powerful commission on arts and culture.
O'Connor believes that the community at large will benefit from plans to transform the Navy Hospital library building in Balboa Park into a museum featuring a special collection of "internationally renowned works."
"It's in a city-owned building," she said. "It's centrally located. Hopefully, we can make it accessible to everyone. We want our citizens to experience it. If you're working through government, you've got to be able to let them experience it at little or no cost."
On Wednesday, local author and artist Theodor Geisel, the creator of the popular Dr. Seuss books, confirmed that he is talking with the city officials about offering a Dr. Seuss collection to the community.
"We're having conversations." Geisel said. "That's about all I can say at this point. Any kind of statement will confuse the issue, I'm afraid." One problem of placing Dr. Seuss works in a museum is that Geisel has already donated about a third of his collection to UCLA.
Pressing for Business Support
O'Connor wants to see more business support for the arts, and she believes that the city should increase its annual allocations of hotel and motel bed tax money to the arts.
"I think we ought to start giving more of an emphasis to the arts through our TOT (transient occupancy tax) funding because, if you have good programs, you attract tourists," she said.