Escondido council wants more accountability from arts center foundation

Escondido City Council members called for more accountability, transparency and better communication from the foundation that operates the city-owned California Center for the Arts, but failed to reduce funding for the center at a meeting last week.

Council members also spoke for the first time in a public meeting about a controversial installation that opened at the arts center in June, in which police officers were depicted as cartoon-like pigs dancing on a pile of donuts, in front of a large photo of officers in riot gear. The installation is part of a street art exhibit that also features graffiti, tattoos, skateboarding and lowrider culture.

Wednesday’s discussion was intended to provide direction as city staff negotiate a new management agreement with the foundation, which will include setting the city’s annual contribution to the arts center budget. Currently, the foundation operates under the terms of a management agreement which expired in 2019.

Under the agreement, the city will pay $1.8 million this year, which includes management fees, the center’s utility bill and maintenance costs. Over the past decade, the city’s contribution has accounted for approximately 20% of the arts center’s total budget.

Board member Mike Morasco sought to reassure the public that board members have no plans to cut the arts center budget.

“We will always keep the arts center. It’s a phenomenal investment and I think we’re all proud of that and we love him and we want the best for him,” Morasco said.

But the current agreement does not clearly spell out important elements of how the center will operate, including responsibilities, communication, allocation of funds and more, Morasco said.

While the controversy over the art installation – which Morasco called ‘hate speech’ – was not driving the conversation, he said it was another factor that added ‘charges and tension’ to the relationship between the city and the center of the arts.

“This latest incident may have highlighted that there is a significant need to improve communications, define our responsibilities and get a management agreement that is not laughable,” Morasco said.

As for the installation, which is called “Three Slick Pigs – APAB Edition” and is the work of Los Angeles artist OG Slick, Morasco said he was an art lover but thinks the installation has exceeded limits.

“It’s about what qualifies as art, when in reality someone can have strong emotional and hateful feelings for a certain group, entity, gender, race, religion, whatever it is, and in the name of the art, we have to accept it. I don’t buy into that premise,” Morasco said.

Councilwoman Consuelo Martinez, however, saw the play differently. “I didn’t have a shock going into this exhibit,” she said, perhaps because she’s been to many Chicano street art exhibits before.

But she questioned the timing of the council’s discussion in the wake of the controversy, as the arts center’s budget is already set for this year.

“The timing felt very wrong to me. And I know it caused a lot of angst and upset in the community,” she said.

Two dozen people, including members of the arts center’s board, have spoken out in person or in writing, urging the board to maintain funding for the arts center and decrying any effort to censor art exhibits of the establishment.

“Having been a law enforcement officer for San Diego County for 29 years, I am not offended by this piece,” Escondido resident Bill Flores wrote. “While some may find this piece of art offensive, it doesn’t bother me or, I daresay, most law enforcement officers. If anything, it elicits feelings of humorous 60s and 70s nostalgia seeing pigs and cops in the same piece of art. I’m sure the board has more important things to do than target the Arts Center in the form of funding for an image that a small minority of Escondidoans might find offensive.

But Mayor Paul McNamara said many people in the community were offended, not just a few. And council member Joe Garcia said he received similar negative feelings through conversations, calls and emails.

“It was 5 to 1 to fund the arts center over and over and over again,” Garcia said.

Garcia said the arts center seemed unprepared for the controversy sparked by the art installation and debated whether to remove the piece from display or cover it, before ultimately deciding to leave it in place. .

Garcia also took issue with a statement released amid the controversy by the arts center’s board of trustees asserting its independence over the artistic choices made by the facility.

“When I read this I said, ‘Shut up, you in the city, shut up, you have nothing to say or do with it’, that’s how I read,” Garcia said. “I said it’s not fuel to the fire, it’s gasoline to the fire. If we’re trying to build a relationship, how can we do it with language like this? »

Garcia said he wanted the arts center to provide the city with quarterly reports on its activities and for the funding to be divided into portions paid periodically rather than a lump sum.

McNamara said he wants more transparency about how the center spends its money. He also said the center could have handled the controversy surrounding Three Slick Pigs better, providing context to explain the piece and why it was included in the exhibit.

“This thing divided the city, it didn’t really unify it,” he said.

William E. Bennett