On paper, San Francisco looks like a great arts town. Several recent studies show that San Francisco spends more per capita on arts programs than almost any other U.S. city. And a study released this summer by the Helicon Foundation encourages cities to look to San Francisco as a model for how to fund small and culturally diverse arts groups.
But the city’s status might be slipping.
"We were really sort of a beacon," says Kary Schulman, director of San Francisco Grants for the Arts, the city’s main cultural funding program. She says other city officials used to call and ask, "'how do you do it?'" Now, she says those calls are more rare.
Funding for San Francisco's arts programs dropped sharply after the recession. Grants for the Arts still hasn't recovered to pre-recession levels.
And while arts spending overall has increased under the watch of Mayor Ed Lee, advocates worry that the allotment isn't stable. In 2013, the Board of Supervisors removed a provision that guaranteed a portion of San Francisco's hotel tax to cultural causes.
Meanwhile, artists are struggling to stay in the city.
A 2015 San Francisco Arts Commission survey found hundreds of artists who had recently been displaced, or were facing displacement, from their homes or workspaces.
Nicole Klaymoon, director of Embodiment Project, a street dance theater company, says she rehearses with her dancers five hours every morning, and then goes to teach at four different schools and dance studios to make rent.
"I’m hustling," says Klaymoon.
A failed ballot measure
Measure S, a ballot initiative to secure more funding for arts programs, failed in last year's election. The measure would have guaranteed that a portion of San Francisco's hotel tax again be committed to arts agencies. The initiative also included funding to address family homelessness. On election day, the measure fell just short of the required two-thirds majority.
Jonathan Moscone, Chief of Civic Engagement at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and one of the authors of Measure S, looks on the bright side.
"With 64% of the vote, we really proved that the vast majority of San Franciscans believe in this," says Moscone. "Whatever we do with that, we have that at our backs."
The coalition that tried to pass the measure is now working on new strategies to get more arts funding from the city. In San Francisco, 78% of public money for the arts comes from the city government, according to a 2016 study by the research group TDC.
Moscone says one plan of action is to ask supervisors and potential mayoral candidates to develop an arts policy as part of their platforms.
"We are talking to everybody to make sure we’re in the right rooms," says Moscone. "It’s better to be in the room making the decisions, than to be outside of the room, hearing the decisions."
Try again next year?
Another tactic is to go back to voters. If advocates want to secure guaranteed funding through the hotel tax, state law requires that they pass a ballot initiative like Measure S.
The big decision is if, and when, to mount such a campaign. Now, thanks to an obscure court ruling, arts advocates may decide to put forward a new ballot initiative as soon as the next election in June 2018.
In August, the state supreme court ruled that local tax initiatives placed by citizens are in a different category than those proposed by government bodies. The ruling's outcome is still uncertain, but it could mean that voters could pass a local tax measure with a simple majority of votes, rather than two-thirds.
In San Francisco, City Attorney Dennis Herrera is responsible for interpreting the decision. He has yet to make a public statement on the subject, but arts advocates are fired up about the possibility that a future ballot initiative could pass more easily.
Reaching 50 percent next time "seems like it's very doable," says Vinay Patel, executive director of the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center.
Patel says the first step of a new ballot proposition campaign is to find out if the arts community is ready to mobilize again. He says that thanks to Measure S, artists now have a better understanding of the political process.
"I've talked to people in my community about this, and they're all very excited," says Patel. And this time, "they already know what it takes."
Moscone says the arts coalition is carefully considering the timing of another ballot run.
"You want to make the right move," says Moscone. "You don't want to just keep going after a ballot just to go after it -- you want to win."
Because of the time it takes to raise money and gather signatures, Moscone says the group needs to decide in the coming weeks whether to run on the June 2018 ballot.
"If indeed we were to go back to a ballot in June or November of next year," says Moscone, "it would require immediate and swift action."