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Davis, California

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Column: Even though it’s boring

In California, prisoners, the arts and UC Davis have two things in common: the ubiquitous presence of budget cuts and license plates.

Never mind the budget cuts for now. It’s a lesser-known fact that California license plates are manufactured at Folsom State Prison’s license plate factory, where inmates laminate, print and press over 50,000 plates daily. Pretty neat, right?

They’re hardly artistic, but one particular plate design relates to both California art and UC Davis history. This plate, which the DMV simply names “Art Council,” features an iconic California label – three palm trees on the left of the letters and digits. Wayne Thiebaud, a celebrated California artist and former UC Davis professor, is the designer.

In addition to making you look like an In N’ Out loyalist, the revenue from these special license plates are the main source of funding for the California Arts Council – the state’s art advocacy agency. They cost $50 for random digits, and $98 for a personalized plate, providing 60 percent of the agency’s funding.

But in the midst of budget cuts, deciding where to first cut funding typically leaves art programs shorthanded. Whether it’s the slumbering economy, the outlaw mentality of the Internet or general wanton disinterest, the future looks uncertain for the art world.

The California Arts Council itself faces serious problems, as it has the lowest per-capita budget for a state arts agency in the nation. These problems aren’t restricted to the agency itself, either – other major California arts icons are suffering as well. The LA city council is currently debating a proposition that would cut funding for its municipal arts agency. The LA Opera scaled back its 2010-2011 season, and the esteemed Pasadena Playhouse recently shut its doors after years of financial difficulties.

And if anyone hasn’t noticed, UC Davis itself – which houses Thiebaud’s original work – cut many of its art-related programs. The UC Davis textiles and clothing department – which is as much of an arts department as it is science – nearly faced the budget axe earlier this school year. Nature and culture experienced similar treatment. The University Writing Program cut classes. Even MUSE, the section you’re reading now, used to be an eight-page tabloid-style pullout.

That’s why it came as an enjoyable surprise when Margrit Mondavi pledged $2 million in fundraising towards the new UC Davis art museum. If all goes according to plan, UC Davis artistic legends such as Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest and Thiebaud himself will finally have a home in the pretty end of campus adjacent to the Mondavi Center.

But even though Margrit Mondavi’s $2 million donation helped to kick-start movements toward the new UC Davis Art Museum, another $28 million is needed to fulfill the donation goal.

UC Davis needs a concerted effort toward reinstating the arts. Our existing programs are exceptional, for the most part – our Mondavi Center is renowned by critics and performers. The pledge towards a new art museum is a step in the right direction, but the process is so speculative even at this point that it’s uncertain if we’ll ever see the museum for years to come.

California art, in general, needs public involvement. The closing of the Pasadena Playhouse brought an end to a California theatrical icon. The California Arts Council itself has a smaller budget than Los Angeles’ own municipal arts agency, which also faces impending cuts. As much of a low priority these departments might take, this is an issue that cannot be shelved for later consideration.

Simply buying a fancy “Arts Council” license plate would suffice. Even if it makes you look like you eat cheeseburgers every day.

JUSTIN T. HO would like to remind potential donors that the Art Museum is still looking for a multi-million dollar donation to reach its $30 million initial goal. You’ll even get the museum named after you. If you’re interested, also consider electronically sending the money to arts@theaggie.org.


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