Arts and cultural production comprise about 7 percent of California’s economy and employ about 675,000 workers, according to a recent National Endowment for the Arts report. We sat down with Anne Bown-Crawford, who became executive director of the California Arts Council in January. The CAC provides arts organizations with grant funding, invests in statewide arts research and educates the public about the role art plays in our society.
You’re new to the position, but hardly new to California’s arts scene or working with the CAC. How does that inform what you bring to the job?
Almost any profession benefits from someone being a creative, innovative and critical thinker in terms of trying to parse out new solutions to problems.
I have 40 years of experience in arts education and state advocacy, and since I could walk I’ve been a community activist with my family. So this is for me a continuum of being immersed in making things happen in the community I live in. My experience in education suits this agency well since our biggest bucket of funding goes toward arts education. A lot of the statewide advocacy I’ve done [in the past] has been working with many of the agencies we work with here, most importantly with the Department of Education and Create California. So it’s familiar work.
A big part of your career has been working to link the arts with economic development. What are some examples of those efforts?
I’ve helped steer arts education toward career-level education, because any career in the creative industry should be honored just as much as someone who is going to be a doctor or a lawyer. Almost any profession benefits from someone being a creative, innovative and critical thinker in terms of trying to parse out new solutions to problems. So on the state level, I’ve helped bring the traditional fine arts programs into the fold of career technical education. I have two curricular programs being used statewide as models, one in high schools for arts media and entertainment, and the other for product innovation and design, which is in the manufacturing industry setting. So kids are actually taking arts courses and creative education courses, and their parents can see jobs within the scope of that work.
Does the CAC have any public-private partnerships?
The CAC itself doesn’t have any current public-private partnerships, but I’m not discounting it. That’s something I’ve been looking at a lot. In our grant funding, whenever someone applies to have a project funded, they need to have matching funds from somewhere in the community. So in that way, we do foster public-private collaboration and partnership right off the bat with every one of our grant funding possibilities. It would be great to do it on a larger level. I think it’s really important to nurture that kind of buy-in for a community. It’s a way to nurture public health. If you get a neighborhood involved in choosing what kind of art is going to go on a building, or how a playground is going to be arranged or what a sculpture is going to be, you develop civic pride and a feeling of ownership and buy-in that right away starts to elevate that community.
You’re a proponent of incorporating more technology and design training into arts curriculums. In what way?
You have pencils and you have brushes and you have cameras, so technology is another tool set. The technology is just an advancement in the tool sets we use. Whoever is designing the box or the user experience or the user interface needs to know about design. We should be teaching industry-standard stuff. Kids we graduate out into the world should know some computer programming, and it should qualify to meet the language requirement in schools. You’re supposed to have 2-3 years of a foreign language to get into a [University of California campus]. Well, why not programming languages? We have to use technology, even if [students are] just in a straight-ahead fine arts program. Teach them how to use the technology before we bounce them out into the industry, whether they are working with health careers or they’re getting jobs at Pixar, Apple or Adobe.
Public art has been important in some major development projects, from Terminal B at Sacramento International Airport to the Golden 1 Center. What role, if any, does the CAC play in these kinds of projects?
I’m very interested in us being involved in some way, shape or form with public art. How do we bring it into the community? And how do we engage the community in that process? So in terms of nurturing artists, it’s another thing that I would like to move toward. We used to provide fellowships to individual artists, and I would like to investigate that more. We’re a state agency, so we’re beholden to the governor’s office and taxpayers in how we spend the money. It ends up being tricky, but I come from an economic mindset at all times. Is it deliverable and how does it suit the greater good?
The Trump administration has tried twice to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. Congress successfully resisted both times, and the NEA got a funding bump in this year’s federal budget. What would losing the NEA mean to the California arts scene?
We just work harder. I don’t see the work being diminished, if you want to know the truth. I mean, yes, we’re very conscious of what we could do with even more money. But after being here and also working on a very local scale, my experience has been that the work doesn’t diminish. Now, I think if we’re talking sustainability, I think the public-private partnerships we talked about earlier could be a way toward sustainability. It’s a matter of trying to come to an agreement on how that partnership affects [a company’s] bottom line, which is a perfectly valid discussion. I’m always interested in having that discussion because I don’t want any lopsided equations. I want it to be equally beneficial. In fact, wouldn’t it be great if it was even more beneficial on the private side?
You’ve spent 40 years in the classroom — what is the biggest challenge to having a more robust arts education system?
It’s never just about money. I think it has a lot to do with public will. Everyone says the arts are a good thing to have because they’re pretty and we like to hear music and blah, blah, blah, but that’s different from knowing intrinsically in a public-will sense that the arts are crucial to the health of a community. If the public doesn’t realize that art is vital to the community, then it’s easy to cut. It’s easy to cut the pretty things so that we can get down to business to make sure they know how to do the math. But if the kid doesn’t want to stay in school because doing the math isn’t contextual, if they don’t even know why they’re learning it and they just want to do something they feel strongly about, they won’t stay in school. They won’t become well-directed and they won’t feel challenged. But if you challenge their heart and their mind and their spirit, the odds of them finding their right livelihood goes way up.