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San Francisco Mayoral Debate Focuses On The Arts

First Posted: 08/26/11 04:24 PM ET Updated: 10/25/11 06:12 AM ET

San Francisco Mayoral Debate

San Francisco has the highest per capita rate of arts attendance of any major city in the country. Over 5,000 city residents are employed in the arts. The city's artistic community is one of the major factors in giving San Francisco an international reputation much larger then its relatively small population would imply.

Naturally, when the city's artistic community put on a forum on Tuesday for the chattering herd of candidates currently running for mayor, virtually every one of them answered the call.

The event, sponsored by over 50 San Francisco arts organizations from the Stern Grove Festival to the Lorainne Hansberry Theater and moderated by KQED Forum host Michael Krasny, featured Public Defender Jeff Adachi, Supervisor Michaela Alioto-Pier, Supervisor John Avalos, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, Supervisor Bevan Dufty, Supervisor Tony Hall, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, Mayor Ed Lee, Green Party candidate Terry Baum and venture capitalist Joanna Rees.

State Senator Leeland Yee didn't show up, but Baum was more than happy to take his place. She was a last-minute addition who did more than her fair share to liven up the proceedings.

Any candidate with an artistic background did whatever they could to push their artistic bona fides. Adachi boasted that he is a musician, novelist, award-winning documentarian and the former chairman of the Asian American Theater Company. Hall repeatedly came back to his experience as the smooth-voiced frontman of his band, The Hallmarks. Baum, a playwright, claimed to best represent the audience as the only working artist on the stage.

Total arts citywide arts expenditures last year totaled $1.3 billion. Ticket sales during the same time period totaled $500 million—as that gap implies, public funding for the arts was the debate's focal point.

Avalos said that neighborhood arts programs are woefully underfunded and outlying neighborhoods, like the Outer Mission and Excelsior, which he represents, don't get their fair share of the precious little funding there is to go around.

Since the 1960s, a portion of the tax that San Francisco has levied on booking hotel rooms has gone to support the arts. However, the percentage of the fund raised from that tax dedicated to arts funding has decreased in recent years as the city's other budget priorities have taken precedence.

Everyone on the panel said they would stop raiding the hotel tax fund and no one vocally disagreed with restoring the portion of the tax going to arts back to its previous eight percent level.

Avalos went even further, saying he would work to close the loophole allowing online travel companies to avoid paying the hotel tax. A measure designed to close this same loophole was shot down by voters last year.

Baum said her solution to increasing arts funding was, "tax the rich, duh," trotting out her campaign slogan to a round of cheers form the audience. "We cannot settle from crumbs anymore."

There is a mandated one percent payment downtown developers are required to spend on public art. At the moment, it's generally used for large art installations in the lobbies of their buildings; Chiu proposed opening up those funds to be utilized by the city's arts organizations. Adachi agreed and suggested expanding that requirement to all large developments, not just downtown ones.

Lee took every opportunity to bring the conversation back to the redevelopment of mid-Market and how that area's resurgence is inexorably tied to the success of its artistic institutions. "Art is becoming a leader in revitalizing our communities," he said. The mayor told a story about meeting with Twitter employees about their decision to stay in San Francisco and how they told him that what kept them here was the city's thriving art scene.

To which Baum quipped, "If the arts made it so attractive for Twitter to stay here, why did we have to give them such a big tax break?"

Baum was definitely the wild card in the debate, willing to go farther out there than any of the other candidates. Some of this is likely because, despite her long history of involvement in San Francisco politics (such as mounting an electoral challenge to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi), her resume is thinner than most of the other candidates and she couldn't as easily point to a record of legislative or regulatory accomplishments to answer questions about what she would do as mayor.

Securing living, rehearsal and performance space for artists was also a major concern. Rees recounted how she used to have an office in SoMa, just as the development that came along with the construction of AT&T Park was starting to kick in. She said she heard talk about how many of the buildings in the area were going to be converted into live/work lofts for artists and was "crushed" when they were all turned into luxury condos.

There was universal support on the panel for the city issuing an affordable housing bond directed at artists.

When the debate turned to the subject of what the candidates would do to promote the arts during the upcoming America's Cup, Hall was the only downer while the rest of the candidates rhapsodized about the positive effects the influx of spectators (and their hard-earned dollars) would have on San Francisco's arts organizations. Hall argued that the city could have negotiated a better deal with the race's organizers, most prominently Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison, and the construction of race facilities along the waterfront will displace not only the artists who live and/or work there but a whole host of local businesses as well. "The negotiations were a bit of a sham, if you want to know the truth," he said.

Citing his experience performing in many a San Francisco nightclub, Hall criticized the city's Entertainment Commission for abdicating their intended role of prompting the arts and instead acting more as a regulatory body enforcing noise complaints and generally acting like a big buzzkill.

Dufty agreed saying, "our young people who came here to be part of the creative economy don't want to go home to Mayberry. They don't want a city that rolls up its sidewalks at 9pm."

Dufty, who grew up in Harlem, is Billie Holiday's godson and, as in previous debates, got legitimately heated when talking about the plight of San Francisco's African American community. "How come the WPA-era housing projects are full of beautiful art and the housing projects constructed since are completely bare?" he asked and suggested remedying the situation by mounting large-scale public art projects in the Bayview's Big Four housing projects.

This is the first debate where Lee was treated like every other candidate. His opponents seemed to have gotten used to his presence and, save for a subtle dig from Dufty near the end of the debate, he was just as much of a beneficiary of the ranked choice voting-induced friendliness as everyone else.

But the niceness might have just been for show. They were in a room full of actors, after all.

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