Escondido City Council members called for more accountability, transparency and better communication by the foundation that runs the city-owned California Arts Center Escondido, but stopped cutting funding for the center at a meeting last week.
Council members also spoke at a public meeting for the first time about a controversial installation that opened at the arts center in June, in which police officers are depicted as cartoon-like pigs dancing on a pile of donuts in front of a large photograph. of officers dressed in riot gear. The installation is part of a street art exhibit that also includes graffiti, tattoos, skateboarding and lowrider culture.
Wednesday’s discussion was meant to give direction as city staff negotiated a new management agreement with the foundation, which would include determining its annual contribution to the city’s arts center’s budget. Currently, the foundation operates under the terms of a management contract that expires in 2019.
Under the deal, the city will pay $1.8 million this year, which includes management fees, the center’s electricity bill and maintenance costs. Over the past decade, the city’s contribution has represented about 20 percent of the arts center’s total budget.
Councilor Mike Morasco tried to reassure the public that the council members had no intention of cutting the arts center’s budget.
“We will always protect the arts centre. “This is an extraordinary investment and I think we’re all proud of it and love it and want the best for it.”
But Morasco said the current agreement does not make clear key elements of the center’s operation, including responsibilities, communication, allocation of funds and more.
While the debate over the art installation, which Morasco describes as “hate speech”, did not drive the discussion, he said it was another factor adding “burden and tension” to the relations between the city and the arts centre.
“This latest incident may have brought to light the important need to improve communication, define our responsibilities, and get a management agreement that isn’t ridiculous,” 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 is an art lover, but thinks the installation is over the top.
“As for what qualifies as art, in reality someone can have strong emotional and hateful feelings about a particular group, entity, gender, race, religion, whatever, and in the name of art we have to accept that. I disagree with that premise,” said Morasco.
Council member Consuelo Martinez saw the issue differently. “I didn’t have a shock factor going into this exhibit,” he said, perhaps because he has participated in many Chicano street art exhibitions in the past.
However, he questioned the timing of the council’s discussion immediately after the debate, as the arts center’s budget has already been set for this year.
“His timing felt very retaliatory to me. And I know this is causing a lot of anxiety and upsetting the community,” he said.
Two dozen people, including members of the arts center’s board, spoke face-to-face or in writing, urging the council to continue funding the arts center and condemning the facility’s efforts to censor art exhibitions.
“As a law enforcement officer in San Diego County for 29 years, I am not bothered by this post,” wrote Escondido resident Bill Flores. “While some might view this artwork as offensive, it doesn’t bother me or most law enforcement officials. If anything, seeing pigs and cops in the same artwork evokes humorous feelings of nostalgia from the ’60s and ’70s. I’m sure the council has more important things to do than targeting the Arts Center for an image that a small minority of Escondido residents might find offensive.”
But Mayor Paul McNamara said that not just a few people, but many in the community were offended. Councilor Joe Garcia said he received similar negative emotions through conversations, calls and emails.
“It was 5 to 1 funding the arts center time and time again,” Garcia said.
Garcia said the art center seemed unprepared for the controversies sparked by the art installation, and he was torn between removing the piece from the exhibit or covering it up before finally deciding to leave it in place.
Amid the controversy, Garcia also objected to a statement by the arts center’s governing body asserting its independence over the artistic choices the facility makes.
“When I read that, I said, ‘Shut up, you in town, you have nothing to do with it, you have nothing to say,'” Garcia said. “This is not wood in the fire, I said gasoline on the fire. If we’re trying to build a relationship, how can we do it with language like this?”
Garcia said he wants the arts center to report to the city quarterly on its activities, and that funds should be divided into portions that must be paid out periodically, not in bulk.
McNamara said he wanted more transparency about how the center spends its money. He also said the center could do a better job of addressing the controversy surrounding Three Slick Pigs, providing context for explaining the piece and why it was included in the exhibit.
“This thing divided the city, didn’t really unite it,” he said.