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San Francisco Mayoral Arts Forum: Eight Percenters, Affordable Housing and Zynga

by Huffington Post

Let’s be honest with ourselves: San Francisco is not a world-renowned tourist destination because of our rolling fog, drizzling summers and frigid ocean. It is the city’s cultural assets that beckon millions of visitors every year. People traverse the entire globe to visit our museums, witness our engineering feats, watch our ballet, inhabit our architecture, and eat our food. According to the 2007 San Francisco Economic Strategy Report (pdf), the City and County of San Francisco has approximately five times the number of art organizations per capita than San Diego, Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties. The city is a cultural juggernaut only rivaled in this country by Manhattan. In a debate at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on August 23, nine candidates vying for the mayor’s office were forced (a less cynical commentator might say “allowed”) to address the eminence of the arts in the city’s tourism economy.

City law mandates that 8 percent of the Hotel Tax Fund be allocated to funding the arts. The much talked about 2006 San Francisco Arts Task Force Report (pdf) found that the actual amount of arts allocations has shrunk to 6 percent, representing millions of dollars of lost arts funding each year. This raiding of the Hotel Tax Fund became the rallying cry for many of the candidates.

Supervisor John Avalos was first to call for a return of the 8 percent mandate, followed by artist Terry Joan Baum, who suggested that the mandate might need to be even higher. President of the Board of Supervisors David Chiu and Venture Capitalist Joanna Rees echoed the necessity to restore the fund’s allocations to the arts. City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Mayor Ed Lee agreed, but added the realistic caveat that this restoration needs to be gradual, so as to avoid a shock to the general fund. Though they did not offer as much of an appeasement to the crowd at an arts center as Baum, Herrera and Lee acknowledge that the role of mayor is to serve more than just those attending a given debate. Nonetheless, with so many city officials in full agreement, the question remains: then why is the fund being raided? When the city’s movers and shakers align, they should be able to accomplish something. And if the situation is more complex and not so easy to solve, the candidates should not rely on political platitudes to explain their stances.

Other new sources of arts funding were discussed as well. Currently, 1 percent of the development costs of big downtown projects must go to public art projects. Public defender Jeff Adachi suggested expanding this mandate to the entire city. Adachi’s proposal would help ensure that it is not only the denizens of the Financial District and SoMa that get to view the resulting works. Similarly, citing the fact that these development-funded works are often housed in corporate lobbies and hidden from public view, Chiu touted legislation he recently proposed to make these funds more flexible so that they can be used for neighborhood art programs. If signed into law, such a proposal would extend public art viewership beyond an audience of investment bankers and corporate lawyers.

It should not be a controversial statement to say that no art community can survive without artists. But the cost of living in this art-centric city suggests that this link is not so clear. On this note, the debate turned to the topic of affordable housing, a pressing subject to almost every artist, writer, or musician I know in San Francisco. Many of the candidates gave vague and nebulous support for affordable or low-income housing. Herrera expressed support for an affordable housing bond. Adachi and former Supervisor Bevan Dufty both proposed somehow convincing the Academy of Art University, seen by many as more of a real estate holding company than an educational institution, to partner with the city to build affordable live-work spaces. Baum disturbingly proposed having a panel of artists decide which applicants are “serious” enough artists to live in any city funded live-work spaces. These suggestions were all ill or partially conceived. No candidate offered a substantive solution to the unsustainable cost of living in San Francisco.

The most divisive issue of the debate was tax breaks for Twitter and Zynga. For many, these caps on payroll taxes are necessary to keep jobs and talent in the city. In exchange for significant tax breaks, Twitter has agreed to move its offices to the blighted and crime-afflicted mid-Market neighborhood. This move is seen by some, such as Lee and Chiu, who championed their support of the payroll cap, as tied to the proposed mid-Market arts district. They seek a holistic approach to the revitalization of the neighborhood that favors both businesses and the arts. Firmly opposed, Adachi sophomorically suggested that if Twitter and Zynga really want to keep their employees in a cultured city, they should simply donate the seventy-five million dollars in savings to the arts. As unreasonable a suggestion as it was, it was a crowd-pleaser.

As with most political debates, it was a bit disappointing to hear politicians passionately talk about all of the things they could be doing right now, but will wait until their next election to actually do. That said, it was nice to hear the potential future mayors explicitly address this integral part of San Francisco’s economy. Though the attempts at addressing affordable housing were malformed, at best, reasonable ideas were presented. Adachi and Chiu’s desire to expand development-funded public art is encouraging, as was Avalos’ insistence on the closure of a loophole that allows hotel patrons to avoid paying the hotel tax when booking accommodations online. Those candidates that impressed me the most offered proposals that understood the nuance of governance, but were also visionary. To whoever occupies the mayor’s office in January, if nothing else, I hope this debate serves as a reminder that the arts community is both large and watching.

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