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TBA Online: News & Features: December 2018

Prop E Teaches San Francisco Artists to Remain Politically Engaged

Tuesday, December 18, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Rotimi Agbabiaka

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series about the victorious campaign for Proposition E. In Part One, we explored the financial impact the new legislation will have on the local arts community. In this article we look at the lessons and tactics learned from the arts community’s successful engagement in city politics

The success of Proposition E this November marked a full rebound for the arts community after a similar measure was defeated in the 2016 elections. By restoring a percentage of San Francisco’s hotel tax revenue to arts funding, Prop E reinstated a civic commitment to culture and created new mechanisms to ensure greater access to resources for previously marginalized groups.

The campaign also taught major lessons to the local arts community, which mobilized at an unprecedented level to achieve this victory. After years of being tossed to and fro on a sea of unreliable funding, arts organizations sought a stable footing. They realized they would have to get political.

It was this realization in part that led Jonathan Moscone to leave his position as artistic director of California Shakespeare Theatre in 2015 and join Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where he now works as chief producer.

“Partly what I was hired to do was to help realize the desire for YBCA to participate more actively in policy insofar as it can be possible for an arts organization to do that,” he says. “It turns out it’s very possible for an arts organization to do that.”

Moscone arrived at YBCA to find a major campaign brewing among the city’s arts professionals—one that would put arts organizations on the frontlines in ways they hadn’t previously imagined.

Kevin Seaman.

“Nobody knew how to officially advocate, how to get involved legally,” says Kevin Seaman, an artist and arts consultant, who served as community organizer on the campaign for Prop E. “Trying to live as an artist or make an arts organization go in this economy right now is so exhausting. All of us are struggling with capacity so of course we don’t know how to officially participate.”

Necessity led this growing group of like-minded advocates to research the various ways in which arts nonprofits can influence city policy. After coming together under the aegis of advocacy group Arts for A Better Bay Area to request greater funding from city hall, the coalition got Proposition S—which would allocate hotel tax revenue to the arts and to homeless services—onto the 2016 ballot. Despite receiving nearly 64 percent of the vote, Prop S didn’t get the two-thirds majority required for a tax measure and failed to pass.  

With this narrow loss came the realization that securing a more stable future for San Francisco artists would require an even larger mobilization. 

Vinay Patel.

“One of the things we thought we needed to do was start early,” says Vinay Patel, executive director of the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center. “With Prop S we only worked for about 4 months or less so it was a mad rush to engage voters, to educate voters, then to get people to vote. It was such a tall task.”

As the team strategized about voter education, it became clear that a more focused message was needed. So homeless advocates came up with their own ballot measure (Proposition C) and Prop S was reborn as Prop E—with an arts and culture focus and two simple messages.

“‘Arts for Everyone’ and ‘Doesn’t Raise Taxes’,’ says Patel. “Those were the two major points that voters needed to be reminded of every time.”

This focus secured the support of city hall, which had previously been skeptical of Prop S’s narrative linking arts and homelessness to the hotel tax. The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to put Prop E on the 2018 ballot in a measure co-sponsored by supervisors Katy Tang, a moderate, and Aaron Peskin, a progressive. 

“The measure already had across the aisle support because it was clearly a restoration of something that had been promised,” says Moscone, referring to the allocation of tax revenue to arts funding when the hotel tax was created in 1961. “It was a very clear idea that everyone could get behind so everyone got behind it.” 

Arts proponents also worked with the office of the city controller to assess the financial implications and allay the concerns that typically arise when a portion of city funds are set aside for a particular purpose.

“We worked closely with the budget department to organize the finances and the narrative in a way that made it clear to the other communities that were being fed by set-asides that this was going to have almost no impact on them,” says Moscone.

Jon Moscone.

With the support of city government, including Mayor Breed, and new allies like SF Travel, the Chamber of Commerce, the Hotel Council, and the city’s cultural districts, the coalition turned its attention to mobilizing the greater arts community. Seaman, who had campaigned heavily for Prop S, was hired as a community organizer and soon found that the demands of staying afloat in San Francisco were holding potential allies hostage.

“We had events for weeks and weeks that nobody came to,” he says.

However, with what he describes as “community-based improv,” following up with every community contact, using a variety of tactics from guilt to inspiration, and hammering home the message that Prop E would ease artist stress, the circle gradually expanded.

“Once people understood they were like: ‘Oh, this is going to increase my budget if it passes!’” he says.

The number of endorsements from arts organizations grew from 40 to about 140; Actors’ Equity organized events; local artists manned phone banks and knocked on doors; new relationships were forged as larger civic arts organizations teamed up with smaller community-based ones.

“Nick Ishimaru from Theater Yugen came,” says Seaman, “and just to have him at the table next to Jon Moscone I thought: ‘What are the different relationships we are building in our community just by virtue of the relationships that come out of this campaign?” 

Theatre Bay Area executive director, Brad Erickson, who served on the steering committees for both Prop S and Prop E, agrees that the new-found unity in the San Francisco arts unity was one of the great achievements of the two campaigns. “For years, arts groups fought with each other to get their piece of the pie. Now we were working together with a common vision for our city,” he remarks.

Patel, Seaman, and other members of the Prop E coalition.

With this unified vision and greater mobilization, the Prop E team set out to change several minds.

“This time around we really tried to target and educate voters that voted no on S … people in the Marina district or in the Richmond who generally vote no on “tax” measures but when they’re educated about what this is about, what we found in the polls is that they flip,” says Patel. “They say: ‘This is something good. It’s not something thats going to cost us anything and it’s actually going to help our city retain its identity and its culture and soul.”

Despite all their hard work, arts advocates still felt jitters on election night. With memories of Prop S’s defeat still fresh, they quietly awaited the outcome. When the returns began coming in, a dam burst.

“The first result that came in was 71 percent,” says Seaman, “and we all started crying.” 

The final vote tally was 75 percent for Prop E, a resounding mandate that exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. Does that mean the coalition’s work is finished?

“Oh, it’s just begun,” says Seaman.

If there’s one thing the coalition has learned, it’s that deep political engagement is the way to ensure the survival of the arts. Coalition members plan on remaining engaged to ensure that the allocated money is disbursed in a way that is responsive to the evolving needs of a diverse community. 

“The city budget is a living organism so we have to be engaged to make sure that our communities’ needs are being addressed every year,” says Patel. “We all said that we’re gonna stick together so that when things come up we’re able to address it.”

As city agencies draw up plans for the new funds, Seaman and Patel urge community participation in the meetings and surveys taking place over the next few months. (Learn more about this planning process in Part One of this series.)

“We need to be really communicative with our agencies and demand transparency about how these funds are going to be spent because its not their money, it’s our money,” says Seaman, “and we worked really hard … to earn this.”

Rotimi Agbabiaka is the Features Curator for Theatre Bay Area. He is an actor, writer, director, teaching artist, and a collective member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Learn more about him at rotimionline.com