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Stars to help fund state arts grants via license plate sales

March 15, 2012 |  9:12 am


This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

What does California have less of than nearly every other state in the union? Per capita spending money for state-funded arts grants.

And what does it have more of? Cars and stars.

Now the California Arts Council, the grant-making agency whose funding (currently 13 cents per capita) had landed it in last place nationally for eight consecutive years before Kansas saved it from the cellar this year by stopping all arts spending, aims to harness the Golden State's bounty of celebrities and motorists in hopes of relieving its dearth of arts grants.

The arts council announced Wednesday that it has enlisted a bevy of stars in a bid to bring a more glamorous touch to its primary funding mechanism: selling special arts license plates (pictured) to motorists whose purchases are in fact charitable contributions to arts grants.

Coming to an electronic billboard near you, under the banner "Create a State," will be Robert Redford, Steve Martin, Quincy Jones, Placido Domingo, Jack Black, Annette Bening, Tim Robbins, Frank Gehry, Harrison Ford, Debbie Allen, Ed Ruscha, Russell Simmons, the Edge, San Francisco 49ers tight end and interior design firm owner Vernon Davis, star chef Alice Waters and the cast of "Glee."

They've signed up as designated "Arts Drivers," along with Eli Broad and David Geffen, billionaires willing to help chauffeur the arts.

A kickoff party for "Create a State" is scheduled for March 22 at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City. Ozomatli is set to perform, and Gehry, Allen, Macy Gray and former California First Lady Maria Shriver (whose sister-in-law, Santa Monica artist Malissa Feruzzi Shriver, chairs the California Arts Council) are expected to attend.

The goal is to boost arts license plate sales to 1 million a year -– a huge leap from the current 60,000 to 70,000. If the goal is reached, said arts council spokeswoman Mary Beth Barber, it would mean that about 3% of the state's vehicles would be sporting arts plates. It would also mean that the California Arts Council could vault from near the bottom to the middle of the pack in nationwide state arts agency funding. It would join the 24 states whose arts agencies get to spend at least $1 per capita.

Arts license plates cost $50 for a new, non-personalized plate or $40 for a renewal -– with the arts council reaping $35 for each new plate (the rest covers the initial cost of providing the plate) and the full $40 for renewals. Selling 1 million plates would generate an estimated $39 million a year for the arts council, a 13-fold increase from the current $3 million from license plate sales. Total agency funding, now $5.2 million, would rise to about $41 million if the $2 million from state and federal taxpayers remains unchanged.

Although still far below per capita spending leaders Minnesota ($5.71, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies), Hawaii ($4.43), Wyoming ($3.82) and Vermont ($3.04) and 14th-ranked New York ($1.90), California's arts agency would have about $1.09 to spend for each of the state's 37.7 million residents. It could exit the bottom-dwelling company of Texas (14 cents), Georgia (16 cents) and Michigan (22 cents) -– the only states besides Kansas that don't at least double California's current arts-grant spending.

Craig Watson, the former Long Beach arts council executive director who last year took over as director of the California Arts Council, said Clear Channel Communications is donating time on electronic billboards to allow the star power to take effect.

The celebrities' pictures will pop up individually, each with a personal catch-phrase to drive home the "Create a State" theme. Black's will say "create a state of awesomeness," Jones will urge that we "create a state of harmony," and Redford’s slogan will be "create a state of independence" (as in the independent film movement promoted by his Sundance Institute).

Some might call this begging by an agency that was meant to be funded from public coffers, not by private donors, when it was launched in 1976. But times have changed for government spending, and Watson has a different spin: "I think it says we’re entrepreneurs."

Besides hoping the stars' message gets through, he said, the arts council has "a cascade of other tactics" to reach its million-plate goal. It's trying to persuade car rental companies and other businesses to outfit their fleets with arts license plates, enabling them to pocket a tax deduction while "making a statement about support for the arts."

Also in the works is an effort to get car dealerships to offer arts plates to customers as soon as they've bought a vehicle. As it now stands, Watson said, buyers automatically get standard plates, and have to use their own initiative -– and deal with the Department of Motor Vehicles -- to exchange them for the special ones. An arts plate option at the point of purchase could help, he said.

And how would all this new money be used? The arts council voted about a year ago to commit half its grant money to arts education, Watson said, with an emphasis on programs that bring artists into the schools. And it could think about initiating some new programs or restoring long-abandoned ones that used to send artists into senior centers, boys' and girls' clubs and prisons.


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For the record, 5:20 p.m. An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that Malissa Feruzzi Shriver is an art dealer as well as an artist. Her business sells works that she and her father create, primarily reproductions of art masterpieces.

-- Mike Boehm

Photo: The California arts license plate designed by Wayne Thiebaud, left, Robert Redford, right. Credit: California Department of Motor Vehicles and Al Seib/ Los Angeles Times