You may have seen the TV spots this spring: Beverage behemoth Pepsi Co. pledges, through its Pepsi Refresh program, to fund innovative and idealistic “good ideas” throughout the nation. A perusal of the website (refresheverything.com ) presents some worthy would-be recipients and ideas, including inner-city neighborhood associations, plans to green-up public and work spaces, provide school supplies and technology resources for at-risk kids, or raise money for hospices and cancer awareness — with each non-profit organization, individual, school, or care center competing for dollars, via your votes.
When you combine corporate resources and control, shrinking dollars for public-arts programs, and the power of public referendum by internet, this could make for a situation stickier than high-fructose corn syrup. On the one hand, corporate dough has been, could, and should be made available for the public good — witness H-E-B’s recent overture to flood-ravaged Laredo, or Valero’s sponsorship of Artpace’s annual Chalk It Up family public-art event. On the other hand, corporate interest has a hand in the bounty, too; a story in Sunday’s New York Times ArtsBeat blog (“Arts Groups Are All A-Twitter Over Grant Money,” July 16) points out that voters in the American Express grant contest had to provide their names and email addresses, and that the money for each of the 15 $200,000 grants came not from its charitable foundation, but from its marketing budget. The NYT blog post also related an anecdote wherein “an overzealous employee” of Lincoln Center made a faux-pas tweet soliciting votes; the venerable performance institution “really need`s` to beat StoryCorps,” the tweet read, referring to the a non-profit that has has collected and archived more than 30,000 personal interviews from more than 60,000 participants.
Some high-end arts muckity-mucks express concern about the grant contests operated by Pepsi, JP Morgan, American Express, Chase, and other for-profit entities turning arts funding into a popularity contest, one that pits arts organizations and other non-profits against one another, all to the good of the sponsoring entity — and indeed, one prominent local artist told me he “won’t play the game.” But when you’re a small, dedicated, grassroots arts organization, one whose primary funding event, say, is a huevos-rancheros breakfast, why wouldn’t you vie for some of PepsiCo’s largesse?
Take San Anto Cultural Arts, for example. Conceived in 1993 by the late musician and activist Manny Diosdado Castillo to help expose Westside youth to the positivity of artistic expression, this organ of creativity has grown to include the community newspaper El Placazo and its mentor program, a program to support community art and murals, and the San Anto Multi-Media Institute. They’ve also recently moved into a new (though in need of help) facility. This is no Lincoln Center; SACA is homegrown arts activism.
The Current spoke to SACA’s Executive Director Heather Eichling, and Development Coordinator Melinda Higgins about the possibilities and ramifications of the Pepsi grant.
Did you think about it in a critical way, about what it means to win money from Pepsi, whether it’d make `SACA` feel indebted?
Melinda Higgins: Sure, and we talked about it a lot.
Heather Eichling: But it’s not as though they’re making us drink Pepsi (laughs), or display promotional materials all over `the center` or anything. … This project `was funded` by $200,000,000 which would have otherwise gone towards Super Bowl advertising. Instead, they decided to open it up to neighborhood groups, or `individuals` starting new programs in their communities; the money is equal-opportunity, so we ultimately felt good about it … we’re really focussing on pursuing more grants from all kinds of organizations, we’ve really expanded that.
MH: And there’s a nationwide component, and a regional component, and different levels of support for all kinds of ideas. In san Antonio, for example, the `San Antonio College` food pantry received $5,000, and a no-kill shelter got $25,000.
So how likely is it San Anto will get the $50,000?
HE: Well, right now we’re in the top 10. The top 10 `finalists` will be funded; each recieves $50,000.
MH: But we really need people to vote, because that top 10 is so volatile; it changes from day to day.
HE: It changes from hour to hour! Right now we’re at number eight, but we could fall under the top 10 at any minute.
Do you have the money earmarked for any particular project, if you do win?
HE: We have a lot of projects — we’re in a new building, which still needs some renovation to make it fully operational. And, you know, the timing is perfect; we’re adding services. We’re hoping and the `kids involved in the programs` are hoping it’ll allow us to take on a lot more creative projects.
MH: About the voting thing, we know it could be controversial, but we see it as the whole community taking ownership, participating. •