Arts hold promise as jobs engine in California economy

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Brian Watt/KPCC

Malissa Feruzzi Shriver, Chair of the California Arts Council holds the California Arts license plate. Sales of the plates have raised more than $20 million for the arts in California

California lost thousands of manufacturing jobs when the economy soured in the early 1990s. The recession has drained away thousands of construction jobs. What the state could use is a new source of well-paying jobs — and it might have found it in the arts. The Joint Legislative Committee on the Arts held a hearing last week in Culver City to find ways to help the arts heal the ailing economy.

It was standing room only last week at the Museum of Design, Art and Architecture as State Senator Curren Price gaveled the hearing to order. The L.A. Democrat chairs the Joint Committee on the Arts.

"As manufacturing continues to leave the state, our creative sector continues to grow and holds the greatest promise, I think, for our future jobs engine," said Price.

In Price's mind, that creative sector sprawls from TV show sets in Tinseltown to start-ups in the Silicon Valley. It's the Hollywood blockbuster and the nonprofit children's arts group. In Los Angeles and Orange counties, the creative sector is responsible for nearly a million jobs. That's the finding of a study by L.A.'s Otis College of Art and Design.

"Unlike cheap manual labor, creative jobs that involve individual artistic creation, innovative design thinking and other high level problem-solving cannot be outsourced easily," said Samuel Hoi, president of Otis College.

Hoi says policymakers should try to keep manufacturing jobs in California. But he says it's also important to prepare young people for jobs in the creative sector — jobs that will stay here.

"We need to support more K-12 arts and design education," he said to thunderous applause from the public, "as well as students' pathways to work and college."

The committee heard from film and TV industry representatives about the success of a recent tax incentive to keep film productions from running out of state. A recording industry rep talked about the threat of piracy. And leaders of hard-hit local arts nonprofits and theatre groups lined up to speak.

Elizabeth Doran is the managing director of the Actor's Gang in Culver City. She says arts groups should be exempt from the state sales tax when they buy needed materials.

"We are spending our budgets and we are paying sales tax on that and I could instead take that money and build a classroom that I could use to teach the students who are not learning in our schools, K-12, in my new arts center that I'm building," Doran said.

State lawmakers are considering a bill that would send 20 percent of the revenue from sales taxes on art supplies to a fund for arts organizations. The bill could be a jobs boon for California's economy, supporters say.

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