The California Arts Council was established in 1976 and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown.
The California Arts Council was created on the basis that the arts are central to the lives of Californians. During our more four decades of existence, we awarded thousands of grants— a total investment of more than $400 million. The timeline below outlines just some of the major milestones since our founding.
Timeline of Arts Council history by decade:
California Arts Council is established
The California Arts Council was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown under the Dixon-Zenovich-Maddy California Arts Act of 1975. The CAC began operations in January 1976 with a budget of $700,000, seven council members, a director and two deputies. Although the California Arts Commission had been in place since 1963, the new CAC was given more authority and a larger budget than the abolished Commission. The CAC’s first director, Eloise Smith, wrote a letter in January 1976 to artists and arts organizations to introduce the CAC’s members and to acknowledge the work of the Commission.
California Arts Council’s first grant programs
In its first budget year (January to June 1976), the CAC awarded $594,000 in grants in four program areas: Arts in Social Institutions, Community Arts, Alternatives in Education, State of the Arts Documentation, and Special Projects. The number of programs has fluctuated over the decades, but at their core, grant funding supports California’s arts and culture in the key areas of access, equity, and inclusion; community vibrancy; and arts learning and engagement.
Newsletter: State of the Arts
To communicate information about CAC programs, services, and activities specifically as well as the arts in general, the agency has utilized a variety of tools to reach and serve its constituents. Beginning in 1977, the CAC distributed a printed newsletter called State of the Arts. With the technological changes of the 1990s, the monthly printed newsletter evolved into a weekly email. Since 2008, the CAC has published its e-newsletter, ArtBeat, a weekly roundup of Arts Council updates, arts news, artists calls, job opportunities, research, and more.
The CAC has a long history of seeking feedback from the public to inform the priorities and policies of the agency. One of the first efforts was in 1979, when the CAC was still very young. By holding six public forums throughout the state, the Center for Social Redesign captured public input for shaping CAC policy and future planning. This 1979 pamphlet describing the forums states, “The California Arts Council is committing itself to formulating its future policy … on the basis of what people need and want.”
State-Local Partnership program begins
With its first grants awarded in 1980, the State-Local Partnership is one of the CAC’s longest running programs. The program empowers local government arts and cultural agencies across the state to better meet the localized needs of the unique and diverse communities of California. Today, the program also supports the implementation of the California Poetry Out Loud competition.
Foundation of Arts in Corrections
Beginning in 1986, the CAC established a long-lasting interagency relationship with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to bring funding of restorative arts programming into California’s state adult correctional facilities. Arts in Corrections was born out of one of the CAC’s original programs, Artists in Social Institutions, which was created by inaugural Director Eloise Smith.
First grants awarded specifically to communities of color
Originally named Minority Arts Development grants, the CAC began awarding grants to organizations representing communities of color through its Multi-Cultural Arts Program in 1987. The grant was developed under the leadership of the Multi-Cultural Advisory Panel. Three members of the panel—Carol Blue, Oscar Maciel and Betty Wong—are pictured here with CAC Director Marilyn Ryan (right) at the panel’s first meeting in 1986. The CAC’s 1988 strategic plan notes, “For many in this program it was a time for long over-due endorsement of their existence and artistic excellence. Many had never before received public funding. …Throughout the state, such groups have long made extraordinary efforts and sacrifices to create, perform, publish, and exhibit the work of people who are Asian, black, Latin, and Native American.”
From its beginnings, the CAC has reviewed grantee applications through a peer-reviewed panel process of cultural workers, artists and arts field professionals. Hundreds of artists have served on the panels since 1976, serving as an integral part of the annual grant process at the CAC. Here, a group of unidentified panelists pose in front of the CAC offices on Broadway in Sacramento.
Governor’s Awards for the Arts
Suggested by CAC’s director Harry Reid in 1986 as one way to mark the agency’s 10th anniversary, the Governor’s Award for the Arts began a few years later under Governor George Deukmejian in 1989. The CAC assisted the Governor’s Office in selecting the awards for a range of categories. A sample of the winners includes: Maxine Hong Kingston (Individual Artist Lifetime Achievement Award – Literary Arts, 1989), Carmen Zapata (Community Cultural Award, 1991, pictured here with Governor Pete Wilson and First Lady Gayle Wilson), David Hockney (Visual Arts, 1994), and Charles M. Schulz (A California Treasure, 1995).
Public Art Reference Manual
In its founding legislation, the CAC was paired with the Office of the State Architect to administer the Art in Public Buildings program. Between 1978 and 1990, the program commissioned 124 artists to work on state projects. In 1991, the program underwent review and redesign but ultimately was not funded. Despite the loss of funding, the CAC published a public art reference manual in 1992 that served as a comprehensive resource to communities throughout the state.
Arts License Plate
The California Arts Plate was created through special legislation in 1994. It is a joint project between the CAC and the Department of Motor Vehicles and was the first specialty plate program in the U.S. designed solely to benefit the arts. The plate’s image, titled “Coastline,” was created by renowned California artist Wayne Thiebaud in 1993. The first advertising campaign included the slogan, “Support the arts. Bolt ’em to your car.” California drivers can purchase the plate when registering their vehicles. Funds generated by the purchase of the Arts Plate go directly toward arts education programming throughout the State.
The Arts: A Competitive Advantage for California
Research into the economic, cultural, and educational importance of the arts is a recurring area of work undertaken by the CAC. In the early 1990s, the CAC funded The Arts: A Competitive Advantage for California. This study presented significant and important trends and information on the essential role the arts play in California’s culture and how that is advantageous to the state in a number of key areas.
CAC office locations
The CAC offices have been located within the Department of Justice Building at 1300 I Street in Sacramento since July 1995. Utilizing space inside and outside the building’s cafe, the CAC organized art exhibits for many years, making a presence in the building beyond its offices on the 9th floor. One of these exhibits included a herd of brightly painted elk. During the two decades prior to settling in the DOJ building, the agency moved five different times in Sacramento, including a move during its very first year of operation.
CAC begins electronic applications
In conjunction with the Western States Arts Federation, the CAC began implementation of electronic grant applications for two of its programs in 2000. This was a large shift from using printed paper forms that grantees filled in and then mailed back to the agency. Since 2016, the CAC has utilized a system that incorporates both applications and grant contracts into one electronic management system. The electronic grant process has significantly reduced the amount of paper files maintained by the agency.
CAC logo and branding
In an August 2000 report to Governor Gray Davis, the CAC announced “the first brand identity in the agency’s history,” and explained that “the logo will appear on all printed materials of the CAC … and will be used to credit the support of the agency on all grantee publications, allowing quick and easy recognition of the state’s involvement in the arts and culture throughout California.” Prior to this, the CAC did indeed have different distinctive logos for program guides, newsletters, and letterhead, but use of the logo now became more widespread on all CAC communications and required of grantees as well. Since the black and red logo of 2000, the logo has been updated a few more times, most recently in 2020.
Arts and Accessibility grants/NADC
Through a partnership with the National Arts and Disability Center (NADC), now one of the CAC’s longest institutional partnerships, the CAC began administering Arts and Accessibility grants to individual artists with disabilities and arts organizations who serve people with disabilities. Arts and Accessibility grants seek to further the CAC’s vision of universal access to the arts for all by enhancing opportunities for participation in the arts by people with disabilities.
California Poet Laureate
California had an 86-year history of appointing and honoring unofficial poets laureate, who served lifelong terms as the state’s resident bards. Then, in 2001, Governor Gray Davis signed Assembly Bill 113 into law, establishing the official post of California Poet Laureate and the involvement of the California Arts Council in administering the honors of the role. In 2013, then-State Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera composed and read a poem to mark the tree lighting at Capitol Park. Herrera would go on to serve as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2015 to 2017.
Year of the Arts (and 25th anniversary)
Under the leadership of Director Barry Hessenius, the CAC declared its 25th anniversary year “The Year of the Arts.” Aspects of the celebration included a comprehensive visibility campaign, awards, a 20-minute video narrated by previous Council Chair Peter Coyote, and Arts Day activities during the month of October. “The year long effort emphasized the value and positive impact of the arts and culture on the state’s economy, to its educational system, and to the civic life of its communities,” the 2000-2001 annual report summarized.
2003 budget cuts
The California state budget crisis beginning in the 2003-04 fiscal year severely impacted CAC funding. By the end of 2004, staff had been cut by more than 50 percent, and general fund support was drastically reduced, from $18 million to $1 million, with all programs suspended. Creative and resourceful efforts from Council and staff allowed the agency to continue its mission, and the CAC was able to award $798,500 in grants in fiscal year 2003-04 and $1 million in 2004-05. During these financially lean years, the CAC focused on grantmaking in its core areas of support to the field: organizational support, arts in education, multicultural and folk arts organizational support, and State-Local Partners.
California Poetry Out Loud begins
In 2006, after a pilot year in Sacramento, California began its statewide participation in the national Poetry Out Loud program. Poetry Out Loud is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts that encourages high school students across the country to learn about poetry through memorization, performance, and competition. Every year, the CAC administers funds and curricula to all participating California counties and hosts the statewide competition, the winner of which goes on to compete at the national Poetry Out Loud Finals in Washington, D.C.
Collaboration on book Essential Art: Native Basketry from the California Indian Heritage Center, by Brian Bibby
Beginning in 2008, the CAC partnered with California State Parks to administer funding from a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant for the research and curation of an exhibit celebrating Indigenous Californian baseketweaving and artistic practices, called American Masterpieces: Artistic Legacy of California Indian Basketry. Photos and critical research from the exhibit were later published in the book Essential Art: Native Basketry from the California Indian Heritage Center, by curator Brian Bibby, with the collaborative support from the CAC.
Create a State – Million Plates Arts Plate event held at Sony Pictures
In the years following the severe budget cuts of 2003, funds from the Arts License Plate were vital to the CAC’s ability to provide grants for arts education. With the goal of increasing that funding further, the Create a State – Million Plates campaign was launched in 2012, with a kickoff event held at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City.
Return of Arts in Corrections
With the budget cuts of 2003 and the recession that followed, California’s Arts In Corrections program slowly dwindled; by 2010, state funding for the program fell to zero. In 2013 and 2014, the California Arts Council and the California Department Corrections and Rehabilitation partnered up to develop a pilot to bring Arts in Corrections back to California’s adult correctional facilities in support of the state’s rehabilitative goals. On the heels of the pilot’s success, Arts in Corrections is now a highly successful and globally recognized program administered by the California Arts Council, reaching every state adult correctional institution in California.
Funding increases begin with Assembly one-time allocation
From 2003 to 2012, the CAC’s general fund budget allocation of $1 million remained unchanged. In 2013, a one-time budget allocation of $2 million by the state Assembly significantly increased the CAC’s capacity to serve the state’s arts and cultural field, and marked the beginning of a trend of annual budget increases and exponential agency growth to come.
State funding increase signed by Governor Brown
In 2014, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. signed a state budget that included a one-time $5 million increase in general fund support for the California Arts Council—the first time in over 10 years for an increase of general fund monies for the arts after support for the Arts Council was cut by 94 percent in 2003.
Keep Arts in Schools Fund (KAIS) –
The Keep Arts in Schools Voluntary Contribution Fund was established in 2014 in an effort to generate more funding for arts education in California schools. Since its inception, Californians have made more than $1.5 million in tax-deductible contributions that go directly to grants that fund education programming in public, private, and charter schools all across the state.
Create CA – A Blueprint for Creative Schools
The importance of arts in education has been one of the primary underpinnings of the CAC’s programs and efforts from the start. The list of CAC’s programs, initiatives, and advocacy related to arts learning for nearly 50 years is long. In the past decade, the agency was involved in a multi-organizational, large-scale project that focused on ways to increase and support arts education throughout the state. The CAC funded and provided leadership to the work that eventually became a report titled Create CA Blueprint for Creative Schools, published in 2015. The CAC continues to be a member organization of the Create CA coalition.
When the CAC reached its 40th anniversary in 2016, it turned to the histories of its grantees to trace the agency’s impact and produced “40 Years, 40 Stories.” This anniversary booklet celebrates the work of 40 different CAC grantees through words and pictures.
CAC joins GARE
The CAC joined the California Capitol Cohort of the Government Alliance on Racial Equity (GARE) in 2017. Through staff work and participation in GARE, the agency adopted a racial equity statement and a racial equity action plan in their 2020 Strategic Framework. The CAC’s participation in GARE marks a significant commitment by the agency to dismantling systems of oppression both in government and in the arts.
Joint Committee on the Arts holds Veterans and the Arts hearing
The California State Legislature founded the Joint Committee on the Arts in 1984 and holds hearings to study and analyze the place of the Arts in California, including the CAC’s programs and budget. In 2018, the committee convened an informational hearing on Veterans and the Arts, dedicated to examining the role of arts therapy in benefiting veterans and military members suffering physical or psychological trauma. Other topics over the decades have included: State of Arts Funding (1997), The Arts Advantage to California in the Changing World (2001), The Importance of Arts to Our Civic Life (2003), The 21st Century Classroom: How to Paint a Canvas for Success (2012), California’s Creative Economy: First Statewide Assessment and Opportunities for Growth (2014), and California’s Creative Economy Regional Breakdowns (2016).
Gathering of Poets Laureate
In October of 2018, more than 60 city, county, regional and state poets laureate, past and present, met for a historic gathering and group reading at the McGroarty Arts Center in Tujunga. The event was the first large-scale gathering of California’s laureates since the termed position of state poet laureate was first established in 2001.
New Strategic Framework and Racial Equity Statement
In keeping its work relevant, the CAC has undergone strategic planning processes and created strategic plans numerous times over the decades. Most recently it adopted Creative Impact: The Arts & the California Challenge in 2020, a strategic framework that encompasses a new mission, vision, and values statements; a racial equity statement; a decision support tool; and a set of aspirations for potential future actions of the Council and agency.