Although many seem ready for a post-COVID world, the pangs of the pandemic—from the losses of loved ones to financial hardships, isolation from others, and much more—still run deep in our communities.

There have been important slivers of hope and resilience, like in the City of Santa Ana for our local artists and arts-based organizations.

Last year, the Santa Ana City Council designated direct funding to our Arts & Culture Commission for the first time to sponsor arts events across the city, helping residents engage with each other in creative, cathartic ways and find pathways for healing from the pandemic as a community.

For many in Orange County, Santa Ana is synonymous with the arts, going back to the artists who activated the downtown Santora Building in the 1990s, the subsequent openings of the Grand Center Art Center and the relocation of the Orange County Contemporary Center for the Arts, and the myriad small galleries and independent art shows that pulse along our Main Street arts corridor and beyond. It has proliferated since from monthly gatherings at Artwalk to include a spectrum of creative spaces and enterprises, comprising a powerful and growing sector of Santa Ana’s economy.

While Santa Ana has cultivated a reputation as a home for the arts, it was not until recently that this appreciation has actually been reflected in our City budget.

In 2015, the city established the Investing in the Arts grant program, which distributes funds to emerging and established artists that constitute “microbusinesses” contributing to the economic vitality of Santa Ana.

Such funding is essential to the health and prosperity of the Santa Ana arts scene and is most powerful when it is reliable, when our artists know that Santa Ana is a place that invests in them and is a locus of arts opportunity.

The Arts and Culture Commissioners advocate vigorously to expand funding for our artists and arts organizations as a way to help us reconnect with one another as we emerge from the isolation of this pandemic. Arte cura, we argue; art is a way we heal together. We presented this letter to the Council last spring urging them to fund the Arts & Culture Commission directly for this purpose.

Our city’s leaders responded: the Arts and Culture Special Event Sponsorships program launched in fall 2021 with the mission to fund creative projects and new ways to engage residents across Santa Ana’s different Wards and neighborhoods—not only our downtown that so many have come to associate with arts events and festivals. 

What the Commission found through the Sponsorship program is that there are budding arts organizers and events on the way to becoming bonafide neighborhood traditions all around us. Until now, many of these organizing individuals relied on the generosity from local businesses and donors in order to host these creative endeavors for our community, if at all, as the City did not have any known or established pathways for motivated residents.

To give you some perspective, over 70 different local organizations applied for this program, allowing us to fund events celebrating the literary and visual arts, dance performances and jazz concerts and chalk art, festivals specific to certain regions of Mexico, outdoor cinema for families to enjoy, strolling mariachis along our shopping districts, gatherings to support mental health services, and much more. Our city dollars are supporting new arts opportunities for our senior citizens, families who have loved ones with autism, and not one but two neighborhood-specific Dia del Niño celebrations, bringing together families and children at a time when our youngest populations are struggling at unprecedented rates across our nation.

Veronica Gomez, a local arts organizer, is an example: she leveraged this funding to host a festival this spring—and will again on June 26—bringing together an international array of dancers and musicians and families in conjunction with the unveiling of a new community mural in downtown. Gomez shared that “this event reinforces our traditions and also unifies dancer groups that we are expecting to come from all over the USA. We are excited to see Mayor Sarmiento, Board members and the Commission’s members so you all can reconnect with the community after this long confinement period.”

Most important, perhaps, of all is that we found that we are an “arts city” in more ways and places than we ever knew and that we can now appreciate more fully as a community. For many of the 31 award recipients—55% of them, in fact—it was the first time they had ever received funding like this from the City. Five of our neighborhood associations were awarded grants to host events and arts experiences for residents in four of our city’s different wards. Eleven of the artists who were awarded grants (35% of the total) used their funds for creative projects during downtown’s monthly Artwalk. Our Parks & Recreation department waived permit fees for many of our grantees to ensure that the funds would be maximized for our residents. So much art and connection across so many communities was possible with grants that ranged between $177 and $8,500 has inspired us as a commission and affirmed the value of expanding this program.

The Santa Ana City Council is once again engaged in budget discussions for the upcoming fiscal year (July 2022-June 2023), conducting community meetings and hearings with the goal of finalizing and adopting a city budget by June 21, 2022.

The artists and arts organizers of Santa Ana are hopeful that this year’s Arts and Culture Special Event Sponsorships are the first round of funding, not the only. If you too believe that making arts experiences equitable for all, across all our wards, is not only a way out of the pandemic but also our way forward as a city, please speak with your city council representative. We also encourage you to come to our Arts & Culture Commission meetings to share how these small celebrations and events are valuable to you and should be valued as a recurring part of our city budget.

Debra Russell (pronouns: she/her) serves her city as a member of the Arts & Culture Commission in addition to teaching local SAUSD high school students in the Upward Bound outreach program based at Santa Ana College. She is proud to call Santa Ana home for herself and her family–especially because of how vibrant and diverse the arts scene is for all to enjoy.

Indigo Vu (pronouns: they/them) is currently the Arts & Culture Commissioner for Ward 1 as well as the Operations Coordinator at VietRISE, a local non-profit organization that advances social justice and builds power with working-class Vietnamese and immigrant communities in Orange County. They and their family have called Santa Ana home for many years and hope to for many more years to come.

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