Grants for the Arts transformed San Francisco 

Grants for the Arts is celebrating its 50th anniversary next month. Who knew that what was considered “an alien and controversial concept” in 1961, according to the Archives for the Performing Arts, would not only transform the arts and cultural landscape of San Francisco but also become a model for the funding of the arts from coast to coast?

In 1961 Mayor George Christopher proposed a “painless way” to help fund not only our organization, then known as the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau, but also earmark a percentage of the new hotel tax for cultural activities. When the Publicity and Advertising Fund, a component of The City’s Hotel Tax Fund, was first created, public support of the arts was virtually nonexistent. Just to put it into perspective, there was no National Endowment for the Arts, no California Arts Council and practically no corporate funding.

We dared to go where no city had gone before.

In its first year, the fund’s budget was $553,000 — modest, but still significant for its time. In fiscal year 2001-11, general operating support grants have grown to more than $9.3 million and provide funding for 207 groups. Grantees support 6,112 jobs and economic activity in excess of $453.8 million. We know from a recent cultural traveler survey we conducted that the arts are an important reason why visitors come to San Francisco, with almost 70 percent of the respondents rating them as “important or very important.”

And fortunately for the San Francisco Travel Association, GFTA also established the first Arts and Tourism Program in the United States in 1989, with the goal of promoting San Francisco as a cultural destination to travel-industry professionals including tour wholesalers, travel agents, convention planners and others. In 1991, we became the first agency to incorporate an Arts and Tourism office as a crucial part of marketing to visitors and business travelers.

Since the beginning, the fund has been an integral part of what we at the San Francisco Travel Association view as absolutely critical to our mission. As former Chief Administrative Officer Rudolf Nothenberg said in the mid-1990s, “San Francisco is a city that finds its voice, its spirit and its very soul through the artists who have made The City their home. The Grants for the Arts are designed to recognize and support those who create art in our city. Their efforts bring vitality to our cultural and economic life and provide enrichment and entertainment for residents and visitors alike.”

Grants for the Arts is celebrating its anniversary Oct. 7 with a special noon performance at City Hall. The performance will include Theatre Flamenco, Patrick Makuakane’s Hawaiian dance company Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wékiu and a special appearance by members of the cast of “Beach Blanket Babylon.”

This occasion calls for a standing ovation from all of us. See you there.

Joe D’Alessandro is president and CEO of the San Francisco Travel Association. He also serves on the California Travel and Tourism Commission and U.S. Travel Association board.

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Joe D'Alessandro

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