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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

Comments () | Archives (14)

Again, this is nothing compared to our ignoring the needs of our children, we are in 47 place and falling in per capita education spending. We have plenty of toys in California, including te arts, which have many rich donors and patrons, which our schools do not. We need to stop being cheap, and pay for what is essential and necessary, our kids, and our future. The rest will have to make do. Art wil always be here, those who can will do not matter what, the rest will whine and make excuses.

art collegia delenda est.

Christopher, I think you're a bit off base on this. If it's a conflict of interest you're seeking to have CAC avoid, hardly anyone of merit I can think of is without some potentially beneficial connection. Arts administrator, actor, curator, professor, etc. might all benefit directly or indirectly from what the CAC funds with its 15 cents. But if your true objective is to dis Shriver as unworthy because her artistic credentials don't meet your standards, you might want to remember that one of the most successful heads of the New York State Council on the Arts was Kitty Carlisle Hart--best-known to millions for being a panelist on a TV game show (to be fair, she was an accomplished actress in her own right, but still...). Hart oversaw the most significant gains in funding in the history of NYSCA because she was able to attract the attention of the legislators who voted the appropriations. Let's hope Shriver can do likewise and judge her after she's been given a chance. Of course, I may just be "giddy" from today's House restoration of NEA funding in the stimulus bill--how can that not cloud my judgment!

Thank you Chris for this appalling write up. Although I am no longer a current resident of So California, I am pained to hear this. Just when the state of national affairs might pump more funding into our creative realms, Calif is equipped to do its best job. where are all the good people?


To Rick Stein, Executive Director, Arts Orange County: The interests in conflict are between commercial and nonprofit arts activities. The quality (or lack thereof) in the commercial enterprise is beside the point.

The difference between non-profit and commerical is just nomenclature for tax purposes. Plenty of heads of non-profits are paid exorbitant amounts of money, see the MoCa guy who fled town. And get paid in other ways, outside of what we see. They can steal quite easily, witness the head of the United Way who stole millions, and others have too, many we dont know about who get away with it. Being a nonprofit most certainly does NOT mean generous or non conflict of interest, there are always political, and cash, favors to be repaid, and greasing the road.

I have no problem with either at this boards head, though it is just another level of bureaacracy, art is the very opposite of. Cant have freedom of expression, and responsibility to humanity, when you are kssing up to rich folks, thervery kiss of death in the arts, and as Yeshua said, from God.

art collegia delenda est

hi mr. knight,

Thanks for pointing out the unacceptably low funding of the California arts council. No doubt you know the history of how this came to be. We have been working for press attention on this sad point!

I never suspected that coverage would come this way but life is surprising. Having been the Chair for only 2 weeks, i guess this is my initiation into the "big time."

I am sorry that my website conveyed the idea that i am an art dealer. In fact, i am not a dealer: i just make my own pieces and sell them. i hope they are not kitsch but, like all working artists, i must submit to your critical view.

I hope you agree that any supposed conflict of interest goes away with that salient fact.

My Dad was a working sign painter. Remember when billboards were painted? How great was that! That's how i learned to paint. But i also learned sculpture, lithography and pottery in California public schools. So, when the Governor nominated me to the council, i hoped that i could convey to my colleagues and to state legislators my deep appreciation for the arts education i received from the state and my real heartbreak at the absence of similar opportunity in today's public schools. i hoped the council would expand its advocacy role. In this recession/depression, that's where we are headed.

But i like mr. stein's thought. i'm no Kitty Carlisle Hart, but i hope to become a pretty good lobbyist for more arts funding and more school arts funding. i hope you will check back in a year or so and see if i have gotten anything done.

Meanwhile, i like mr. stein's other thought: that today is a great day for the arts in America with the NEA presence in the stimulus package. California will receive an important percentage of this funding if we can secure a larger general fund allotment as the NEA funds match state contributions. Perhaps you will join our campaign for those general funds? We can always use some good press.

I am very pleased that all of the letters, faxes, e-mails and phone calls to our legislators in DC saved the funding for ART JOBS through the NEA. However our job is not finished. Some in the media are convinced that the NEA will use the funding for "projects" (and they say it like they are referring to Maplethorpe type projects of which they disapprove) and not to save jobs in a very important sector of our economy. We still need to make that point whenever we can.

I have to wonder, why would Christopher Knight, whose main claim to fame is having played Peter on The Brady Bunch, feel in any way qualified to pass judgment on somebody working to promote arts in our pathetically-funded public schools?

As a member of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District's Advisory Committee on Visual and Performing Arts, I have been impressed to see Ms. Feruzzi at many public school conferences and arts events. California's children are lucky to have a person with her dedication and intelligence working for them.

As the director of a state arts council myself (the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts), I'd like to offer two or three points on the "conflict of interest" issue. One of the biggest challenges we face is credibility - ensuring that the grants that we award are given based on merit and NOT on an applicant or board member's ability to influence the final outcome. That said, it is always a challenge to involve people in our work who are knowledgeable about and engaged in the arts without the existence of some sort of conflict. That's a serious problem in a state the size of Rhode Island, but it is also a problem in a state like California.

So, how do you avoid or minimize conflict? First, you provide as much transparency as you can. Board members and panel members declare conflicts: direct conflicts like a familial or business relationship with an applicant or someone named in an application, or indirect conflicts like a competitive relationship that may cause someone to wonder if it affected whether someone got a grant (or, sometimes, whether they didn't). A serious enough conflict means you leave the room when that application is discussed, or you're not on the panel in the first place.

In the case of Ms. Feruzzi, she is a for-profit gallery owner, and most state arts councils just plain don't fund for-profit galleries. She's an artist herself, and like artists on my board she must forswear any funding from the state while she serves (and, at least in my state, for a couple of years afterwards). That's a sacrifice itself, and for working artists a significant one. And, if she's the kind of artist who has a network of friends and colleagues in the field, all the better. Unless she has a financial relationship with one of them, it just isn't a conflict.

Her bio on the California Arts Council website is amazing (see it at http://www.cac.ca.gov/aboutus/councilmembers.php#3). She has a broad range of experience in a number of areas, particularly in arts education. She is, in my opinion, uniquely qualified to serve on the Arts Council board. And since we presume that a Gubernatorial appointee is someone who can talk to the Governor who appointed her about the needs of the agency (something else we hope for in a Council member), it also appears that she is uniquely qualified to do this.

I understand the point you are trying to make in your piece. Unfortunately, your slot machine analogy just doesn't work. These are difficult times for artists and arts organizations, and you really DO need people who are knowledgeable about the field helping to make decisions on the best way to invest minimal resources. California's done a good thing by elevating Ms. Ferruzi to a position of leadership in the state arts council.

Randall Rosenbaum
Executive Director
Rhode Island State Council on the Arts

State Arts Councils are probably irrelevant. As a former Institutional Funding officer and Development Director for classical music organizations, I can safely say that acquiring funding from an arts council always took more staff time and trouble than it was worth. Enormously complicated and detailed applications and requiriements that would lead to grants that were often less than 1% of an organization's operating expenses or less than 10% of a particular project. I notice that during the period of a moribund CAC, California organizations that present art music have flourished and expanded. This says something about the relevance of the CAC and of arts councils in general.

February 16, 2009
Re: Response to your February 13 Commentary on the California Arts Council
Dear Mr. Christopher Knight:
Your February 13th, 2009 Los Angeles Times website opinion piece “Eye-rolling at the California Arts Council” has been brought to our attention. Of course you are entitled to be concerned about the level of arts funding in our state, and we share your concern. However, as our state sits in the middle of the worst economic downturn ever, we are stunned that you chose to articulate that concern through a personal attack on the ethics of the leadership of the California Arts Council. What is particularly disconcerting is that as a journalist, you chose to use your voice in the press to speak without any advance research or at least choosing to talk to or contact anyone from the California Arts Council to confirm the accuracy of your outrage. Had you even tried to do your advance homework, you would have found that we would have been happy to speak with you. We would welcome any questions you may have regarding the workings of the Council, and we would be pleased to share with you information about the range of services provided by Malissa Feruzzi Shriver and Bill Turner or any of the other dedicated public servants on the Arts Council. To elect to attack a person’s integrity is a serious charge and one would expect that as a journalist, you would have been scrupulous in your research, given the damage to one’s reputation such an accusation can have. Since you have chosen this approach, please allow us a public moment to respond in our capacity as the two Arts Council members who, in our respective roles of having served as the Arts Council’s Immediate Past Chair of the Council, and as the Chair of the Nominating Committee responsible for recommending the Council’s newly elected Chair.
Mr. Knight, your words charge and wrongly attack and accuse the Art Council’s newly elected chair, Malissa Feruzzi Shriver, of “blatant conflict of interest…” You made inferences of business conflicts for Council member Bill Turner. You chided the Arts Council for its lack of concern, even in its meagerly funded condition, stating, “After all, ethical standards are free.” Why is not clear, but with these words you not only attacked two passionate advocates for the arts in our state, and our new Chairwoman who is exceptionally dedicated and principled, but you call into question the ethical standards of all of us on the Council, and provide no basis for your unfounded accusations.
So what is the “blatant conflict” of which you speak? First, Ms. Feruzzi Shriver is not an art dealer, as you claim. She is an artist who serves on the Council on a voluntary basis just like the rest of us. Mr. Turner is a gallery owner, but as an art dealer, he makes his living by selling art, not as a recipient of Arts Council funding. As Council members, we are all forbidden from using our positions to promote or benefit our businesses whether profit or non-profit. Had you done your homework, you would have known that under the State’s Fair Practices Act, each year at about this time, Council members are required to complete and submit to the state a Statement of Economic Interest Form 700, listing all people with whom we have done business in any field relating to that which is the subject of the Council’s purview. A freedom of information act request would have gotten you this information.
The California Arts Council is not, as you suggest, like a casino “gaming commission.” Instead, the Arts Council is a legislatively required body that provides public oversight and policy recommendations to the State of California’s agency known as the California Arts Council. The 11 council members are appointed by the governor and other legislative leaders. The California Arts Council body meets 6 to 7 times a year in cities around the state. We travel to address matters of public art policy, applaud and advocate local arts programs, and to vote on the distribution of grants issued statewide. If you had at least asked you would have learned that we travel at our own expense. We voted years ago to forgo requesting the per diem payments, even though legally entitled, because of the state’s difficult economic conditions. The grants we are empowered to authorize help fund hundreds of non-profit arts organizations, arts educational programs and artists. Grant recipients are not selected by Council members, but recommended by dozens and dozens of volunteer panels of arts professionals from around the State who also must avoid conflicts of interest. It is the responsibility of the Council to review the recommendations of the panelists, which have been first vetted and overseen by the staff, and provide final approval for the recommended grants to go forward. Should any Council member have business relationships with any of the grant recipients, we are required to recuse ourselves from voting on the approval of that particular grant. Furthermore, under the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act of 2004, no more than two council members can meet concerning Council business without that meeting being noticed and open to the public, further ensuring the transparency of our efforts and process.
So, exactly where, then, are you suggesting that these unethical enrichment opportunities reside? The Chairman of the Council has no more voting authority or control over this process than any of the other Council members, and Mr. Turner has no personal opportunity to utilize his Council service to enrich himself personally. Mr. Knight, you seem to be charging that by virtue of being the sister-in-law of the Governor, Ms. Feruzzi Shriver’s appointment to the Arts Council is tainted and negatively impedes the Council’s arts funding and policies in our State. Had you investigated you would have seen that, nothing could be further from the truth.
No, arts funding at our State Arts agency is not high enough. Our community deserves to have funding from our general fund as well as from the arts license plate sales from where we currently get the bulk of our grant funding. Still, over the last four years we have had a Governor who actually has vested in nurturing arts education. Starting in 2006, he proposed and added 100 million dollars to the state budget for K-8 arts and music education programs. Even in these tight economic times, the Arts Council hosted a reception for the state legislature in Sacramento to share our views about the critical role the arts play in optimizing the educational, cultural and economic health of our state. Some twenty legislators attended, a turn out which was greatly enhanced by the Governor’s appearance and his speech about the importance of the arts. Ms. Feruzzi Shriver begins with the sort of access that many in the arts hope to develop. As such, her connections to the Governor are a tremendous asset to the arts of our state.
But that relationship is irrelevant, because Ms. Feruzzi Shriver was nominated and elected to serve as our new Chairwoman because of the high quality of her past service. She has spent the last several years practically serving as a one woman/man/superhuman fighting machine for the arts. With enormous energy she seeks and creates ambassadorial platforms from which to advocate on behalf of anyone and any entity large or small, urban or rural, and from any genre or cultural background that is dedicated to making art accessible and of value to the lives of all Californians. This is not a secret. If you had done just a little bit of research even outside of the Council you would have heard this endlessly from others. If she uses her access, it is as a bully pulpit for the arts. It is a connection of volunteer, unpaid service that is derived from a passion and integrity that benefits all of the arts. It is her “can do and will do” zest, and unwavering support for all the arts that Ms. Feruzzi Shriver always brings to her dealings with the California Arts Council that makes her exactly who and what we need as the next baton leader for the arts in our state. It is for these reasons that she was unanimously elected to serve as our next Chairwoman.
Mr. Knight, it is disappointing to have to write this letter of rebuttal when we share so many of the same concerns and desires for the health of the arts in our state and country. Your February 6th editorial regarding the role that the arts can, and should, play in the calculations being made for our economic recovery was absolutely on point. Your voice in the press to help bring this point home years ago would have been very valuable. Even today, there are ways to engage public support the arts in California such as through the election to have a dedicated arts license plate. The arts license plate through the Department of Motor Vehicles is the primary source from which our state’s Arts Council gets it grant funding today. It was the work of the Arts Council and staff, including the marketing efforts of Ms. Feruzzi Shriver, Mr. Turner and others that recognized this reality and helped to push the information about the arts license plates further into public view; growing the income from this program. If you sport such a plate on your car (which we hope you do), and if you would use your voice to tell others to do the same, then we can continue to sustain and grow the funding for the arts in our state even as the negotiations to revise our state’s budget continue. Eventually California and our country’s economy will turn around, and great ideas will be welcome. Whether you have specific ideas for future sources for increasing the per capita funding in our state, creating greater interest in the DMV arts license plate program, or simply being able to keep legislators and the public informed and favoring resources for the arts, your thoughts remain welcome and desired so that we can make California the true “creative capital” of the world that we all know that it is and should be. Until then, we can assure you, that it is the state of California, and not Ms. Feruzzi Shriver or Mr. Bill Turner, who are the richer for their service to our state.

Sincerely yours,

Michael Alexander Charmaine Jefferson
Immediate Past Chair/California Arts Council Chair/California Arts Council Nominating Committee
Executive Director, Grand Performances Executive Director, California African American Museum

Dear Mr. Knight,

I attended the Governor's reception in honor of Ms. Shriver's appointment as Chair of the CA Arts Council. Coincidentally(?) the reception happened on Arts Advocacy Day, when I and other board members of CA Arts Advocates were lobbying legislators in Sacramento for an arts agenda at a time of great economic difficulty. There were a number of legislators at the reception whom we were unable to reach during our office visits. Perhaps because Ms. Shriver did CA Arts Advocates the honor of inviting us to the reception, they listened to our pitch as to why the arts are essential to California's economy, educational system, and communities statewide. I have remained in contact with them, and their understanding of arts impact on the state has already changed substantially.

In the arts we always strive for greatness. We often fail. But hit or miss can't be judged until the work is in the theater or on the wall. I would ask you to be gracious enough to hold off reviewing Ms. Shriver's tenure until the results of it are in. After seeing a preview at the reception, I think she might surprise you.

John Gallogly
Executive Director
Theatre West
Los Angeles, CA 90068

CA Arts Advocates

Are you an art critic or a people critic? Hope you don't judge the merit of art as quickly or shallowly as you judge the merit of people. I applaud the work of Ms. Feruzzi and please don't forget that she is a VOLUNTEER. Please focus your attention on the real issue at hand... getting the CAC some more funds.

I don't know which is more disappointing--the California Arts Council's inappropriate selection of its chairperson; or, the rationale for that choice offered above by the past chair of the CAC's nominating committee and the director of a state museum. Let me respond to several points.

First, I made no accusations about anyone. I criticized a state agency for making a bad decision.

Second, I made no claim that any CAC member had any business relationships with any of the agency's grant recipients. That would be graft, not conflict of interest.

Third, the CAC represents the state's nonprofit arts sector, and its membership should represent that diverse constituency. When the owner of an art business chairs the CAC, an inherent conflict exists between private interests and public obligations.

Fourth, applauding success in gaining the "access that many in the arts hope to develop" with the Governor of California is hardly a convincing argument in favor of nepotism. It is instead a symptom of the problem, for which yet more eye-rolling is in order.


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