Escondido City Council members called for more accountability, transparency and better communication from the foundation that runs the city-owned California Arts Center, Escondido, but failed to reduce the center’s funding at a meeting last week.
Council members also spoke for the first time at a public meeting about a controversial installation that opened at the art center in June, in which police officers were depicted as cartoon pigs dancing on a pile of donuts, in front of a large photograph. of officers dressed in riot gear. The installation is part of an urban art exhibition that also includes graffiti, tattoos, skateboarding and lowrider culture.
Wednesday’s discussion was intended to provide direction as city staff negotiates a new management agreement with the foundation, which will include setting the city’s annual contribution to the art center’s budget. The foundation currently operates under the terms of a management agreement that expired in 2019.
Under the agreement, the city will pay $1.8 million this year, which includes a management fee, the center’s utility bill and maintenance costs. Over the past decade, the city’s contribution has accounted for about 20 percent of the art center’s total budget.
Councilman Mike Morasco tried to reassure the public that council members have no intention of cutting the art center’s budget.
“We will always maintain the art center. It’s a phenomenal investment and I think we’re all proud of it and we love it and we want the best for it,” said Morasco.
But the current agreement does not clearly specify important elements of the center’s operation, including responsibilities, communication, allocation of funds and more, Morasco said.
While the controversy over the art installation — which Morasco called “hate speech” — isn’t driving the conversation, he said it’s another factor that has added “burdens and strains” to relations between the city and the art center.
“This latest incident may have highlighted that there is a significant need to improve communications, define our responsibilities and reach a management agreement that is not laughable,” Morasco said.
As for the installation, which is called “Three Slick Pigs – APAB Edition” and is by Los Angeles artist OG Slick, Morasco said he’s an art lover, but he believes the facility crossed the line.
“It’s about what qualifies as art, when in reality someone can have strong emotional feelings and hate towards a certain group, entity, gender, race, religion, whatever, and in the name of art we have to accept it. I don’t accept that premise,” Morasco said.
Councilor Consuelo Martínez, however, saw the piece in a different way. “I had no shock factor walking into this exhibit,” he said, perhaps because he has attended many Chicano street art exhibits in the past.
But he questioned the timing of the council discussion in the wake of the controversy, as the arts center’s budget is already set for this year.
“The timing of it felt very retaliatory to me. And I know it caused a lot of distress and upset the community,” he said.
Two dozen people, including members of the arts center’s board, intervened in person or in writing, urging the council to maintain funding for the arts center and denouncing any efforts to censor the facility’s art exhibits ·lation
“I have been a San Diego County law enforcement officer for 29 years, I am not offended by this piece,” wrote Escondido resident Bill Flores. “While some may find this piece of art offensive, it doesn’t bother me or, dare I say, most law enforcement officers. If anything, it evokes feelings of humorous nostalgia from the 60s and 70s seeing pigs and cops in the same piece of art I’m sure the council has more important things to do than target the Arts Center in the form of defunding a picture that a small minority of Escondido residents could find offensive”.
But Mayor Paul McNamara said many people in the community were offended, not just a few. And Councilman Joe Garcia said he received similar negative sentiments through conversations, calls and emails.
“It was 5 to 1 to defund the arts center, over and over and over again,” Garcia said.
Garcia said the art center didn’t seem prepared for the controversy the art installation sparked, and debated whether to remove the piece from the exhibit or cover it up, before ultimately deciding to leave it in the your place
Garcia has also disagreed with a statement released amid the controversy of the board of the arts center in which he affirmed his independence in the artistic choices of the equipment.
“When I read that, I said, ‘Shut up, you city shut up, you have nothing to say or do with this,’ that’s how I read it,” Garcia said. “I said that’s not fuel on the fire, that’s gasoline on the fire. If we’re trying to build a relationship, how can we do that with language like that?
Garcia said she wants the arts center to provide quarterly reports of its activities to the city and that the funding should be divided into installments that are paid periodically instead of a lump sum.
McNamara said she wants more transparency about how the center spends its money. He also said the center could have done a better job of managing the controversy surrounding Three Slick Pigs, providing context to explain the piece and why it was included in the exhibit.
“This thing divided the city, it didn’t really unify it,” he said.