Potters working at Merritt Ceramics in Oakland. Business co-owner Stephen Ruby says he would welcome the California Creative Workforce Act as a means to diversify the ceramics workforce and community overall, which he says is predominantly white.
A statewide bill seeking to diversify California’s arts and culture workforce and provide jobs that pay a living wage to keep creative sector workers in expensive locales like the Bay Area has landed on the governor’s desk after winning near-unanimous support in the Assembly and Senate.
"The purpose of the act would be to establish creative arts workforce development as a state priority and to promote employment and 'earn and learn,' as defined, job training opportunities for creative workers, among other things," the bill language states.
If Governor Gavin Newsom signs SB628 into law—he has until Oct. 10 to approve or veto it—it could eventually mean more career opportunities for Californians who might otherwise feel excluded from pursuing arts and culture careers because of financial or other constraints, and allow creative sector employers to employ arts professionals and pay them a living wage.
"The fact that the California State Assembly and Senate both really see the need for developing our creative artistic workforce, I think it's fantastic," says Usha Srinivasan, co-founder and president of Mosaic America, a South Bay arts nonprofit that presents inter-cultural events.
Srinivasan says her small, grassroots arts group relies heavily on a volunteer workforce to produce programming like the upcoming Mosaic Festival, an all-day event on Oct. 2 in San Jose featuring performances, workshops, exhibitions and food from many of the different cultures that make up Silicon Valley.
"We don't have the money as a small community-based nonprofit dealing predominantly in communities of color to be able to hire workers," Srinivasan says. "So what that legislation potentially could do is help organizations like ours that would love to have people we're able to pay, as well as people we can train."
A Sector Under Siege
According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, California’s creative sector contributes more than $230 billion dollars—or 25%—of the country’s entire creative economy. It represents nearly 8% of the Gross State Product (GSP), and nearly 800,000 jobs.
But the devastating effects of COVID-19 on the cultural industries have made this new legislation a matter of urgency, say the bill's proponents. According to a recent report by the Otis College of Art and Design, the pandemic impacted more than 500,000 creative sector jobs around the state in 2020, and caused a creative economy output loss in excess of $140 billion over the year.
"We know that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the creative arts, and this is a way to establish a long-term solution and try to support them with funding," the bill's co-author, State Senator Susan Rubio, told KQED.
"It's clear that we've got to make sure that that workforce is maintained in this state, and grows, finally getting rid of the 'starving artist' paradigm." says Julie Baker, executive director of Californians for the Arts and California Arts Advocates, the latter of which co-sponsored the bill. "We've also got to make sure the workforce matches who actually is in this state in terms of diversifying the workforce."
Current and Historic Parallels
The California Creative Workforce Act is novel because there has never before been workforce legislation created at the statewide level specifically targeting the creative sector.
SB628 also has roots in two historic federal initiatives: The Works Progress Administration's (WPA's) Federal Art Project, which successfully put thousands of artists to work during the Great Depression, and the lesser known Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which provided full-time employment and training for more than 10,000 artists and 10,000 arts support staff from 1974-1980.
"Many of us boomers, who began working in the '60s and early '70s, we all we all got hired because of the CETA grants," Medak says. She adds that, early in her career, she was able to hire trainees through the program. "The point was that there was money there to take a gamble on people who had potential or interest and no skill. And the job of the organization was to train them," Medak says.
Diversifying the Talent Pipeline
With a $20 million annual budget, Berkeley Rep is one of relatively few U.S. non-profit arts organizations to offer its own training program. Medak says the company's training fellowships have been in effect since 1985, and 30 to 60 percent of the trainees have been from diverse backgrounds over the last 10 years.
"20 to 30 percent of our workforce is people who we trained through that program," Medak says. "So we know that we have we have a training model that works."
She welcomes the new legislation as a pathway for more arts and culture organizations to diversify the talent pipeline. "This is essential because what we know is one of the biggest barriers to young people of color being able to enter the arts is that entry level positions in this field tend to be very, very poorly compensated," Medak says. "And so being able to minimize that as a barrier makes it possible for people to imagine that they can do this."
The aspect of SB628 which seeks to earmark grants for creative sector employers to offer paid apprenticeships to Californians from diverse or low socioeconomic backgrounds also speaks to Stephen Ruby, co-owner of Merritt Ceramics, a pottery studio in Oakland.
"It's hard for us to find diversity, especially in our hiring, because so many of the experienced people in the area are the whiter demographic that's predominant," Ruby says.
Ruby's business already saw modest gains from participating in a program in 2019 through the Bay Area youth job training nonprofit New Door Ventures, which enabled it to provide a handful of short-term, paid apprenticeships to local, low-income high schoolers. Ruby says he ended up offering one talented trainee a proper job.
"Having more opportunity for that would certainly open the door, I would think, for enabling more people to enter this kind of field or this kind of community, even," Ruby says.
Funding and Implementation Still Vague
However, Ruby isn’t clear on how the new bill will be funded, or if his for-profit business would even be eligible to receive grants.
"It still seems vague," he says.
The few lawmakers who oppose the bill share these concerns.
"I support a thriving arts community in California," State Senator Patricia Bates said in a written statement emailed to KQED. "But I opposed SB628 because it does not specifically address who is eligible for the program, where the money will come from, and how that money will exactly be used."
Senator Rubio says the legislation sets up the framework for the grant program, a crucial first step. If the governor signs the bill into law, she says the state’s Arts Council and Workforce Development Board will go ahead and create guidelines for the program. And then advocates will start to push for funding from the state budget to create a pilot grant program.
"The funding, of course, is a concern," Rubio says. "But I think before the funding comes, we need to establish the program."
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