Santa Ana City Council Approves 10-Year Arts and Culture Master Plan

Santa Ana prides itself in the past as a city of arts, and for more than a year, it's been envisioning what that identity will look like in the future. The Santa Ana city council tasked the Cultural Planning Group, a consulting firm, in May 2015 to develop an Arts and Culture Master Plan. Community outreach began in January with a “Town Hall Kick-Off” event featuring Chicana author and playwright Josefina Lopez at Santa Ana College. The consulting firm placed the finishing touches on the plan to deepen arts in the city over the next ten years, with the city council unanimously approving its vision last night.

“We do believe this is one in a series of steps,” councilman Vince Sarmiento said in brief comments before the vote. “I do see art as a way that fills the soul of the city.”

The 100-page Arts and Culture Master Plan, the first of its kind for the city, lays out eight key goals for Santa Ana. Chief among them is creating a “robust infrastructure” for the arts, giving artists the support they need to sustain their work, and taking cultural programming into the community, engaging all the city's residents beyond downtown. A city-appointed Arts Future Leadership Task Force, affordable housing for artists, and more festivals for the masses will all help usher Santa Ana into a new era of the arts.

“At one point, artists were much better integrated to the workings of city hall, but it was very much driven by personality so they were very short-lived opportunities,” says Santa Ana arts commissioner Sandra “Pocha” Peña. “At some point, you need some sort of infrastructure.”

But who's going to pay for it? The plan identifies several potential revenue streams like applying for grants, allocating a percentage of hotel bed-taxes collected, and business improvement district (BID) funding. Currently, Downtown Inc. manages half of BID revenues and is supportive of the arts vision. “We’re really excited about this master plan before you tonight,” Ryan Smolar, lead consultant with Downtown Inc., said before the vote. He described the arts scene in Santa Ana as a magnet for attracting small businesses. “Arts and culture is the cornerstone of the creative economy of our community.”

It's no secret that with the advent of the Artists Village in the 1990's and the redevelopment of Fiesta Marketplace into the East End more recently, art has become a battleground over gentrification. “It's beyond the scope of a cultural plan to solve the issue of gentrification as it it more appropriately addressed through City housing and economic development policies,” the master plan reads. It notes the changes arts can bring to an area: new restaurants, businesses, upgraded buildings, increased property values, and “in-migration” of young professionals. “While efforts must be undertaken to limit the negative effects of gentrification, most of these changes are positive developments for a neighborhood,” the plan asserts.

Though the consulting firm says resolving gentrification is too large a task for its purposes, supporters point to provisions that, in part, directly address the issue. “Artists are being blamed for gentrifying but they're getting kicked out, too,” says Victor Payan, Director of Media Arts Santa Ana and Peña's husband. He points to arts empowerment zones in the master plan as a remedy. “That way if an artist, gallery, or community space comes in and increases the vitality of a community, there's protections so they don't get kicked out.”

The Arts and Culture Master Plan faced no criticism last night from the public comments podium or the dais, but there are reservations from artists in the city. “As much as artists need affordable spaces it also creates a creative class in preference to low-wage workers and residents,” says artist Alicia Rojas, who had participated in the process at one point as a steering committee member. El Centro Cultural de Mexico, a longtime community center in downtown Santa Ana and longtime critic of city-sponsored gentrification, also issued a response to the Arts and Culture Master Plan

“Unfortunately, the plan builds on arts and creative class arguments for economic development with no social justice lens,” Centro's position statement reads. “This is not only problematic, but places Santa Ana’s cultural planning in a dangerous direction that leads to further gentrification and displacement with no assurances to the working communities.”

There was no such skepticism after the council meeting, though. Outside council chambers, artists celebrated the adoption of the master plan, snapping photos together with consultants and chatting up future possibilities. “We really in the center of this industry and we're not really tapping into it,” Peña says. “We can all rise together in creating strong, vibrant, and meaningful art to communities.”

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