California Arts Council

State of California

A final message from outgoing California Arts Council Director Muriel Johnson

Published: 01-28-2011

The days have grown short and I am almost your past Director. Six years have flown by quickly and it has been an amazing experience! Before I go, I want to share some of the highlights with you.

When I arrived at the California Arts Council, a year after the enormous CAC state budget drop from over $30 million in 2001 to $1 million in 2004, all programs had been cut, half of the staff were gone, and the job descriptions of remaining staff had radically changed. As I look back, both the Council and the staff were rightfully demoralized. But we were still here, ready to move forward with a new strategic plan and to look at new ideas such as the California Music Project (CMP) using a Texas model. CMP was formed to bring music back into schools. A report entitled The Sound of Silence showed that California had, shockingly, lost half of its school music programs. The Council, looking to find ways to raise money outside the state's budget, put the project together and formed a 501(c)(3) organization, which then could raise tax-deductible funds, and formed a Board led by CAC chair Barbara George and member Phyllis Epstein after they left the Council. Today, CMP works with the California State University System, supplying music students with stipends and special internships to keep them from dropping out and encouraging them to teach music.


Legislation has been a huge part of the recovery of the CAC.

Going back a bit, legislation in 1992 established the sale of the Arts License Plate, designed by renowned artist Wayne Thiebaud. It has supplied funds for arts education and local arts programming ever since.

In 2005, Senator Jack Scott sponsored legislation to bring the price of the Arts License Plate up to that of other specialty plates. With the cost of a sequentially-numbered plate now raised to $50, the CAC earns approximately $34 on each plate, plus renewal fees. Since this important change was made, we have been able to fund nearly $3 million in grant programs annually.

Today, I hope you are all involved with our "Million Plates Campaign," which could potentially raise $40 million to foster the arts in California. With our state's dour financial outlook, the Council is setting the pace to raise its funds through heightened awareness of the plate, the need, fleet sales and, hopefully, gift cards.

More recently, kudos go to Senator Curren D. Price, Jr., who sponsored legislation to add the California Arts Council to the list of worthy organizations to receive voluntary contributions on the annual California income tax return. We've tried before, but Sen. Price made it happen and it's a welcome addition to our fund-raising capacity. We must receive a minimum of $250,000 in contributions by the third year to remain on the list. Once again, please help us spread the word!

Assemblyman Roger Niello carried successful legislation to change the CAC Director's appointment by the governor to being selected by the Arts Council members. There is a trend across the country to depoliticize the position as well as professionalize it.

We are indebted to our legislation proponents, the California Arts Advocates, as well as to the legislature and Governor Schwarzenegger for their support. These three bills will continue to make a "big difference" for the CAC and the arts field.


In collaboration with the Department of Parks and Recreation and the California Museum, and with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the CAC initiated an exhibition of 80 Indian baskets which have rarely been seen by the public. The baskets are now on tour throughout California.

Poetry Out Loud is an NEA project which is carried out in all states. California Poetry Out Loud reaches 40,000 high school students as they memorize and recite competitively from the local level through the state competition held in the Senate Chambers at the State Capitol. Partnering with Poetry Foundation, Poets in the Schools, high school English teachers, local arts councils, parents, Target (funder) and many individuals, students learn to speak publicly with confidence and clear elocution. The state winner competes in Washington, D.C. to become the nation's Poetry Out Loud champion.

After the CAC's budget drop, some of our state/local partners (county arts councils and commissions) closed their doors, or came perilously close to doing so. Others lost staff and were operating with a one-person staff and volunteers, and many lost local funding as well. Because of the Arts License Plate, we were able to utilize $1 million over three years to strengthen councils by providing statewide convenings, technical assistance, personal visits and grants. The upshot is that there were 39 partners in 2005 -- and that number is now up to 50 county partners and 2 city partners.


The CAC was instrumental in advocating for the Cultural Data Project to be located in our state. With the leadership gift of $1 million from the James Irvine Foundation, plus generous donations from the Los Angeles County Arts Council, the Getty Museum, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the CAC, the project moved ahead swiftly to assist arts organizations with grant applications, arts statistics and a research component.

The forming of a "Cultural Cabinet" made up of Directors of like-minded state organizations (Parks & Recreation, the State Library, California Museum, State Archivist, California Council for the Humanities, Cultural Tourism and the CAC) has been illuminating, and an avenue to working together collaboratively.

The grants-making procedures, with peer panels of volunteers from every area of the state, have continued. The unexpected additions to our granting capability with the Arts Recovery grants and the music performance grants from the Department of Justice were an important addition in 2009. Fortunately, our grant funding has increased from under $1 million in 2005 to about $3 million in 2010 -- due in large part to sales of the Arts License Plate.


Reaching arts audiences of 350 to 450 people at two statewide convenings was definitely a highlight. Among many outstanding speakers, hearing the NEA chairman, Dana Gioia, and his uplifting, positive message was meaningful to many.


The daily mail is filled with the most creative, colorful, exciting invitations, announcements, programs, newsletters and magazines that one can imagine. The graphic art produced by arts organizations in California is amazing, and illustrates the equally-amazing art and programs you provide throughout the state.


Perhaps the biggest changes transpiring at the CAC over six years involve the use of technology. A talented staff web team has dramatically improved and updated our website; we've ventured successfully into social media so we are more connected to Californians of all ages; we are close to mastering webinars, and are ready for the next wave of technological advances.


There are many unmentioned highlights, but really it has always been about the arts -- and the people who create, who produce, who organize, who advocate, who teach, study and love the arts.

It has been my great honor to serve California and the whole panorama of artistic endeavors. While the financial times have not been the best, the creative people of this state have been.
My thanks to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for giving me the opportunity to serve, to the enthusiastic, dedicated arts council members, hard-working staff, wonderfully imaginative, talented arts field ... and everyone who is engaged in making, supporting and enjoying art. It really does make life worth living!

I look forward to our paths crossing again.


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