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Next California Arts Council head eyes license plates

by Long Beach Press-Telegram

Craig Watson faces serious funding issues with state body.

In his short term of just two and a half years as executive director for the Arts Council for Long Beach, Craig Watson has achieved about a decade’s worth of accomplishments, including the establishment of the Greater Long Beach Arts Lab (GLOBAL), overseeing a Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Committee on the Arts and advancing public art in the city. On Aug. 15, Watson will move to the state level as the Director of the California Arts Council in Sacramento.

Q: You’re doomed. There is no money. You’re getting an annual budget of about $3 million, which is about what we pay each year to get our grass cut.

A: Actually, it’s about $5.1 million. This year, our budget includes a little over $1 million from the state’s general fund, almost $1.3 million from federal funds (the National Endowment for the Arts) and a bit over $2.8 million from the Arts License Plate program.

Q: OK, but that’s still low against the country’s average spending on the arts per capita. I think California’s in dead last.

A: We’re in the bottom 10, but not last anymore. Some states, like Kansas, have zeroed out their arts spending.

Q: So, basically, $5.1 million is better than nothing. But it’s a long way down from the $30 million the Arts Council had back in the glorious days of the Gray Davis administration.

A: Well, it’s certainly waxed and waned over the years. It also went down to $2.9 million at the end of Davis’ term.

Q: That’s probably why he was recalled. Republicans were outraged at his cuts in the arts.

A: Well, it will be my biggest challenge in the job, to increase the money we make from the sales of license plates. They were designed by California artist (and Long Beach Poly alum) Wayne Thiebaud, and they’re very vibrant and colorful.

Q: The ones with the palm trees on the left side?

A: Yes. The palm trees are very prominent, which makes them very iconic for Southern California, but they don’t sell well in Northern California, so we’re looking at a second plate that would appeal more to that part of the state.

Q: When (Long Beach resident) George Deukmejian was governor, he gave my dad a cushy commission post. What can you do for Long Beachers now that you’re going to Sacramento? Can you give us a $1 million arts grant?

A: I can’t go a million.

Q: Dogs or cats?

A: I love it when you ask that. I’m a dog person. We have a chocolate lab named Teddy.

Q: Do you have to live in Sacramento, or are you staying in Long Beach?

A: I actually live in South Pasadena, and I will still be there with my family. I was hired with the flexibility to commute. I’ll be flying up out of Burbank.

Q: So, you’ll be forgetting about Long Beach altogether?

A: Oh, no! I am and will always be committed to the arts in Long Beach. I have a lot invested in this community. And I’ll still be involved. I’ll be back in September when we present our blue ribbon committee report on arts and culture. Also in Sacramento, I’ll be speaking about some of the things we’ve established in Long Beach as models for what we can do throughout the state. My wife Carolyn is on the Cal State Long Beach Art Museum board and we both have so many friends here in Long Beach.

Q: Do you have children at home?

A: My son is going to be a sophomore next year at South Pasadena High. My daughter is 19 and she’s at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. My wife is a designer and landscape architect who’s cworking on a couple of major residential projects right now in California and in France.

Q: It keeps bothering me that the arts in the state depend so much on the sale of license plates. Have you considered selling candy outside grocery stores?

A: The plate program is a potentially huge source of income for us, and it’s one of the immediate major goals. If we can sell a million plates, we could generate as much as $40 million a year for the arts in California.

Q: You’ve been in art groups and organizations before, then you headed Charter Communications in Long Beach, now art again. That’s not a question, but what’s with the little stint in cable TV?

A: Actually, I spent 26 years in the cable business. I got my degree in sculpture from from Occidental, then I went into art for a while, then cable for a long time. Now I’m back to my true calling.

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