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Eye-rolling at the California Arts Council

February 13, 2009 |  4:10 pm

Alprackcard_3 For many years, the barely surviving California Arts Council has been pretty much a joke. Money-wise, the arts agency of America's most populous state lags behind those in Alabama, Oklahoma and other places not widely known as hotbeds of adventurous cultural activity. So, reports that the council's 15-cents-per-capita funding keeps it at rock bottom among the 50 states is hardly an eye-roller.

Still, as long as California's state government is going to pretend it has a serious interest in the arts, shouldn't blatant conflict of interest at the arts council be of some concern? After all, ethical standards are free.

Newly elected chairwoman Malissa Feruzzi Shriver, owner of Feruzzi Fine Art, was elevated to the leadership post by her colleagues a few weeks ago. Having an art dealer chair the state arts council is sort of like having a slot machine manufacturer run the California Gambling Control Commission. On one hand, who would be better informed about gambling than a business that profits from it? On the other, surely you jest.

Of course, Feruzzi Fine Art isn't exactly Regen Projects or Gagosian Gallery. According to its website, the L.A.-based business specializes in "recreations of old master paintings" — although all the copies illustrated are of 19th and 20th century pictures, not Old Masters. (Those date from the 16th through the 18th centuries.) Also available are "original work, portraiture, sculpture" and other kitsch. Shriver's state bio says she studied painting and sculpture at UCLA, which has one of the best art schools in the nation; but her website bio says psychology and women's studies were her majors there.

For comparison, the chairwoman of the New York State Council on the Arts is a university dean and former museum curator. Alas, far down in the New York council's weeds, an art dealer does turn up among 20 members on the commission roster. Attorney Deborah Ronnen also owns Deborah Ronnen Fine Art in Rochester, specializing in modern and contemporary art. The 10-member California Arts Council matches that with attorney William Turner, who owns an eponymous gallery in Santa Monica.

While it might be nice to have a major nonprofit arts administrator or a respected cultural historian at the helm of a state agency that gives out grants, the California council can claim an eye-roll-worthy topper. Shriver is married to the brother-in-law of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who first appointed her to the arts council in 2005. Adding nepotism to conflict of interest nicely underscores just how hapless the California Arts Council is.

— Christopher Knight

Credit: California Arts Council

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