Escondido council wants more accountability from arts center foundation

Escondido City Council members called for more accountability, transparency and better communication from the foundation that runs the city-owned California Center for the Arts, Escondido, but stopped short of cutting the center’s funding at a meeting last week.

Council members also spoke for the first time in a public meeting about a controversial installation that opened at the arts center in June, which depicted police officers as cartoon pigs dancing on top of a pile of donuts in front of a large photo of officers wearing riot gear. fighting riots. The installation is part of a street art exhibition that also includes graffiti, tattoos, skateboarding and lowrider culture.

Wednesday’s discussion was intended to provide direction as city officials negotiate a new management agreement with the foundation that will include determining the city’s annual contribution to the arts center’s budget. The foundation is currently operating under a management contract 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. For the past decade, the city’s contribution has accounted for about 20 percent of the arts center’s total budget.

Council member Mike Morasco tried to reassure the public that council members do not intend to cut the arts center’s budget.

“We will always keep the arts center. It’s a phenomenal investment and I think we’re all proud of it, we love it and we want the best for it,” Morasco said.

But the current agreement fails to clearly spell out important elements of the center’s work, including responsibilities, communication, funding allocations and more, Morasco said.

While the controversy surrounding the art installation — which Morasco described as “hate speech” — wasn’t driving the conversation, he said it was another factor that added “heaviness and strain” to the relationship between the city and the arts center.

“This latest incident may bring to light that there is a significant need to improve communications, define our responsibilities and get a management agreement that is no laughing matter,” Morasco said.

As for the installation, which is called “Three Slick Pigs – APAB Edition” and is the work of Los Angeles artist OG Slick, Morasco said he’s an art lover, but he thinks the installation crossed a line.

“It’s about what qualifies as art when in reality someone can have strong emotional and hateful feelings towards a certain group, entity, gender, race, religion, whatever, and for the sake of art we have to let’s accept. I don’t believe that premise,” Morasco said.

Council member Consuelo Martinez, however, saw the piece differently. “I didn’t have the shock factor when I walked into this exhibit,” she said, perhaps because she’s attended many Chicano street art exhibits in the past.

But she questioned the timing of the council’s discussion on the heels of the dispute, with the arts center’s budget already set for this year.

“The timing of it seemed very vindictive to me. And I know it caused a lot of anger and upset the community,” she said.

Two dozen people, including members of the arts center’s board, spoke in person or in writing, urging the council to keep funding the arts center and condemning any efforts to censor the facility’s art exhibits.

“Having 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 artwork offensive, it does not bother me, nor, dare I say, most law enforcement officers. If nothing else, it evokes feelings of humorous nostalgia from the 60s and 70s when you saw pigs and cops in the same artwork. I’m sure the council has more important things to do than target the Arts Center in the form of withholding funding for an image that a minority of Escondido residents may find offensive.

But Mayor Paul McNamara said many people in the community were offended, not just a few. And Councilman Joe Garcia said he has received similar negative sentiment through conversations, calls and emails.

“It was a 5-to-1 shutdown of arts center funding, over and over and over again,” Garcia said.

Garcia said the arts center seemed unprepared for the controversy sparked by the art installation, and debated whether to remove the piece from the exhibit or cover it up before ultimately deciding to leave it in place.

Garcia also took issue with a statement made amid the controversy by the arts center’s board, asserting its independence from the artistic choices made by the facility.

“When I read that, I said, ‘Shut up, you city shut up, there’s nothing you can say or do about it,’ that’s how I read it,” Garcia said. “I said it’s not wood on the fire, it’s gasoline on the fire. If we’re trying to build a relationship, how can we do it with language like this?’

Garcia said he wants the arts center to provide quarterly reports on its operations to the city and that the funding should be broken down into installments paid periodically rather than 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 addressing the controversy surrounding “Three Slippery Pigs” by providing context to explain the work and why it was included in the exhibit.

“This thing divided the city, it didn’t really unite it,” he said.

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