When state officials hand out arts money, government records show, Ventura County's arts groups get a below-average share.
And when the county weighs such spending, arts leaders say, they fare even worse.
State arts officials blame both shortfalls on Ventura County government leaders.
Money, they say, may be tight, but most comparable counties have been able to find more than Ventura County supervisors have.
"They need educating," said Gloria Woodlock, manager of state-local partnership programs for the California Arts Council. "Ventura and Orange counties seem to be the ones I've had the hardest time with. It's been very difficult to get them to understand that an investment in the arts is more than just window-dressing."
Richard Wittenberg, Ventura County's chief administrative officer, acknowledged that "as a county becomes less rural and becomes more suburban or urban, the arts become more important."
But with county finances so strapped and so many social issues needing attention, Wittenberg said he doubts an increase in county arts support is in the cards.
He suggested that support for the arts is a longstanding tradition among many of the counties that outspend Ventura.
U.S. Census figures show that Ventura County includes 669,016 residents, or 2.25% of the state's population of 29.76 million.
Of the $10.5 million distributed in major 1989-90 grants by the state arts council, just $99,073 went to Ventura--0.94% of the state total.
Census figures show a population of 369,608 in Santa Barbara County, or 1.24% of the state total.
Yet arts groups there received $186,240 in 1989-90 state arts council major grants--1.77% of the state total.
To get state money, arts groups must file detailed applications, which are judged by peer panels made up of arts professionals from around the state.
The professionals assess arts groups' strengths and potential, using a four-point scale, and give money to the most promising.
"That's why you need a local arts agency. It's the local arts agency that provides the technical assistance to improve operations," Woodlock said.
For most of the 1980s, the Ventura County Arts Commission acted as the local agency in partnership with the state arts council, operating without a trained arts administrator on staff and drawing strong criticism from state officials who found the group unresponsive to the community.
"The county has a history of low funding," said Maureen Davidson, executive director of the private, nonprofit Ventura Arts Council.
In 1987, amid a rash of criticism over the commission's inactivity, the commission gave the job of being state-local partner to the Ventura County Arts Alliance, an arm of the private, nonprofit Ventura County Community Foundation.
As the Arts Alliance's role has grown, its relationship with the state has improved, yielding almost $40,000 in grants in 1989-90.
That role is more tenuous since the Ventura County Community Foundation's recent decision to streamline operations and let the Arts Alliance stand on its own.
The county of Ventura, meanwhile, still employs no trained arts administrators.
Officials said the county's 1989-90 budget set aside $25,625 for arts grants, $20,000 of that to the Ventura County Museum of History and Art, the rest to the Arts Alliance as a contribution toward a countywide cultural plan.
"I can show you rural counties that are putting more money into the arts than Ventura County," Woodlock said.
"Let's see . . . San Bernardino County, $215,000; Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, $460,000, and I think that's gone up. Riverside Arts Foundation . . . $281,000."
Arts administrators statewide say a coordinating local agency can be a key to an arts community's growth, uniting organizations with common interests, passing along grants and sometimes acting as a lobbyist for the arts.
County governments in Sacramento, Fresno, Santa Clara, San Francisco, Santa Barbara and elsewhere sponsor such organizations.
Santa Barbara County granted its arts commission $151,000 last year, and the city of Santa Barbara added a larger amount.
Much of that was regranted to local arts organizations.
Other sources of potential support for the arts vary widely.
Local arts leaders have long complained that this county's philanthropists give the arts less than their counterparts elsewhere, but no figures exist to confirm or refute the idea.
At the level of city government, arts leaders say, support varies widely.
In Ventura, officials passed along $75,000 in programming support to the private, nonprofit Ventura Arts Council and set aside another $10,000 for regranting to artists by the council.
Meanwhile, Harvey Roth, acting director of the Arts Alliance, noted that the cities of Camarillo, Moorpark and Simi Valley have declined to contribute any money to the alliance's effort to draft a countywide cultural plan.
The California Arts Council handed out $10,531,000 statewide through its major arts grants programs in 1989-90.