Last Monday, Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao unveiled her proposed city budget for the next two-year fiscal cycle of 2023-2025. The $4.2 billion budget addresses core city services like infrastructure, police, and fire while resolving a $360 million deficit. The budget avoids layoffs by merging key city departments and freezing or eliminating vacant city positions.

In addition to other big changes, Thao’s budget includes significant reductions in grants and other subsidies supporting the city’s cultural nonprofits, artists, filmmakers, festivals, and outdoor markets. Because Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Division is already small compared to other city departments, local artists and cultural leaders say the cutbacks will have an outsized impact—especially on Oakland’s historically underserved neighborhoods and communities.

The Cultural Affairs Division, which falls under the city’s Economic and Workforce Development department, draws money from the General Purpose Fund, hotel and lodging tax, Public Art Fund, and supplementary funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and private foundations. During the 2021-2023 cycle, its total budget was $7.3 million, or less than half a percent (0.362%) of the city’s overall spending. For the next two years, Mayor Thao has proposed reducing the Cultural Affairs Division’s budget to $5.4 million.

The mayor’s budget reduces by 20% the Cultural Funding Program that supports many organizations and local artists, eliminates a $500,000 budget for events at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, and cuts another $300,000 per year that provides discounts for application fees and fire inspections for events organized by non-profits and small organizations. 

The mayor’s proposed cuts also include a 20% reduction in grants and subsidies for five of the city’s longstanding community partnerships—Children’s Fairyland, Chabot Space and Science Center, Asian Cultural Center, Hacienda Peralta, and the Oakland Parks and Recreation Foundation—that receive funding through the Oakland Parks, Recreation, and Youth Development division. 

Also not included in Thao’s budget plan is a $60,000 subsidy for Lake Merritt’s vending marketplace along Embarcadero. Over the past few years, tensions between street vendors and neighbors at Lake Merritt led the city to organize markets to provide vendors with a place to sell their wares.

Thao’s budget proposal also reduces the amount of hotel tax revenue that can be spent on cultural grants and application services by about $34,000 and puts a hiring freeze on four vacant positions that will limit the city’s ability to host events: one in Cultural Affairs, two in special permits, and a student trainee position. 

As a mayoral candidate, Thao made a campaign promise to “champion the city’s arts and cultural districts and events” and said the arts are “part of what makes Oakland such a vibrant place to live and visit.” Last year, during a Q&A with the Oaklandside, she talked about the “need to fund the arts.”

But the city’s dire financial situation means that Thao and the City Council, by law, must balance the budget by closing a $360 million deficit. In addition to the city’s Cultural Affairs Division, nearly every other department is being subjected to spending cuts. Unions representing city workers have mostly praised the mayor’s proposed budget because although it reduces spending, it avoids laying off any staff.

Aztec dancers performing at the 2019 Dia de los Muertos festival in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. Credit: Jayasimha Nuggehalli Photography
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A scene from last year’s Black Joy Parade. Credit: Amir Aziz

The Oaklandside spoke to several people involved in Oakland’s arts and culture scene about how, if passed, the budget cuts will affect their ability to hold events and offer programming. Without adequate funding, some said they may be forced to cut back on programs or shut down completely.

Samee Roberts, president of Heart of the Town, a local event marketing and promotion nonprofit, and a former city employee, called the cuts to cultural funding “foolish.” Roberts said that simply lauding Thao’s budget for avoiding layoffs overlooks the downstream impact that cutting the arts will have. “This budget balancing act is being conducted on the backs of community programs,” she said.

Having a robust arts and culture sector in the city can be an economic driver, she added, attracting visitors and generating revenue for local businesses.

“The arts sustained Oakland through all those ups and downs of the past 20, almost 25 years,” she said. “The mayor is saying that hotel tax revenue is down. It is because we’re still feeling the effects of the pandemic. But the reasons why people come to Oakland and why they spend in Oakland are these events that take place across the city.”

Roberts also oversees Art & Soul, a popular festival in downtown Oakland for over two decades. Last year, the overall budget for the festival was $104,000, over $25,000 of which came through city grants and subsidies. Additional funding for the festival is secured through philanthropic grants and sponsorships. Under the mayor’s proposed budget, the city’s portion of funding would be significantly reduced. 

“$25,000 is a big hit for a small nonprofit,” she said. “I am concerned about the future of the festival.”

Families participate in an arts, culture, and environment summer camp at Peralta Hacienda Historical Park. Credit: Amir Aziz
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A scene from last year’s East Oakland Futures Festival in deep East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Holly Alonso, executive director of Peralta Hacienda Historical Park in Fruitvale, one of the city’s community partners whose funding is in jeopardy, shared similar concerns. 

Even though the mayor’s budget includes “equity considerations” to account for how the cuts would affect different communities, Alonso said that reducing the city’s already slim budget for arts and culture will severely impact residents and artists from underserved communities.

Peralta Hacienda encompasses three buildings and six acres of open land. The nonprofit offers programs serving Fruitvale and other residents throughout the year, including six youth programs, community exhibits, the Teatro Jornalero collective, and the annual Khmer New Year Festival. 

Alonso said that before the market crash in 2008, Peralta Hacienda received $180,000 per year for operations. After the Great Recession, that funding dropped to $49,000. Its funding increased to $70,000 two years ago, but Alonso is now worried that the budget will again dip as a result of fewer city dollars. 

“What we get now is less than we need to operate,” said Alonso. “The impact of the reduction is on the community. Cutting arts and culture funding is demoralizing.”

A Native American pow-wow at the Indigenous Red Market in Fruitvale. Credit: Amir Aziz
Kevin L (left), vendor on the El Embarcadero side of Lake Merritt talks to a customer.
Kevin L (left), a vendor on the El Embarcadero side of Lake Merritt, talks to a customer. Credit: Amir Aziz

Nonprofit leaders aren’t the only ones concerned about how the proposed budget cuts will impact the city. Members of the city’s Cultural Affairs Commission, which advises the city on policy decisions impacting arts and culture, are also speaking out. The commission was revived in February 2020, nine years after being shut down in 2011 during the Great Recession for lack of funding. 

Shortly after Mayor Thao unveiled her proposed budget last week, the commission issued a petition asking the mayor to “save the arts in Oakland.” As of this week, the petition has garnered 807 signatures out of its 1,000 goal. 

Diane Sanchez, who chairs the commission, noted that Oakland isn’t known for being a tech giant hub like Silicon Valley and may soon be without any major professional sports teams if the Oakland Athletics move to Las Vegas. What Oakland is known for, she said, is the art and culture that comes from here. 

“This is an investment that yields not only a sense of belonging in Oakland, but it also yields financial results,” she said. “The department will have to look and see how it would allocate money, but it will hit a lot of these organizations and a lot of the things that people come to count on,” she said. “When you think of Oakland, you think of festivals. What if there are no festivals?”

City Council must approve the proposed budget or issue amendments and finalize it by June 30.

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.