Guest Post: They Call It Legacy

By Donn K. Harris, Chair of the California Arts Council and Executive Director, ArtsCenter, San Francisco Unified School District

Perhaps it’s our age, and I won’t out my esteemed colleague and friend Craig Watson here, but I am sixty-one years old, and the word legacy seems to be cropping up everywhere these days. It’s often used to describe someone’s motivation for an act they committed, as in, ‘They’re thinking about their legacy.’ Few of us get the luxury to to do that, as the world swirls by at such a hectic pace that we’re lucky if we get to the end of our time with an organization and can stop and breathe for a minute and say: ‘That was a good time. We left our mark.’

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Donn Harris and Craig Watson at the State Capitol.

Craig Watson, the Director of the California Arts Council for the past 5 ½ years,  who is leaving the agency effective March 31, has left his mark.

He  has left it on all of us who have worked with him. He has left his mark on the California Arts Council itself, on California – and on the United States. That’s not coming from me. No less an authority on the national arts scene than Barry Hessenius placed Craig Watson on the 2015 list of the 50 Most Powerful and Influential Leaders in the Nonprofit Arts in America. That in itself is a legacy-maker, and here are some of the factors that went into Craig being placed on that prestigious list:

  • The agency’s budget, counting all revenue streams, went from $5 million in 2013 to almost $25 million in 2017. That’s a quintupled infusion, and the way the CAC was able to craft new programs and hire staff and keep the back office sane is a testament to teamwork and good administration. 
  • The new programs themselves – for veterans, independent artists, large-scale partnerships, cultural districts, public media, juvenile justice, adult incarceration facilities, turnaround arts schools, Common Core education initiatives, the support of newly formed cultural organizations, and research projects – represent almost a tripling of program offerings – a staggering feat. The breadth of the new arts programs, their visibility and influence, is unmistakable. From food and dishware artistry in the north to youth photography programs on the Mexican border, the CAC has become more than relevant – we’re the creative lifeline for many communities. 
  • If any time an artist puts a brush to canvas or a bow to strings represents a statement of sorts, any leader in a state as large as California would have a hard time pointing to a theme or a unifying principle to the work produced. Given that, the thematic coherence to the last four years of arts production funded by the CAC is impressive, and reflective of our state’s priorities:
      • Work extolling our bounteous natural resources and physical beauty: …with many projects having to do with water conservation, also valued by the governor. The artistic Renaissance surrounding the restored channels of the LA River is only one example of this significant movement; the Santa Cruz River walk is another, and the Mokelumne (90% of Oakland’s drinking water!) was the basis for a 2014 Amador County Arts grant. 
      • Partnerships and collective action: Creative California Communities, Cultural Pathways, Cultural Districts – the power of the individual becomes an exponential factor in these well-crafted programs. Our State and Local Partnership Network puts the County Arts agencies in charge of their local creative product. 
      • Social Justice and Equitable Outcomes: Arts in Corrections, Juvenile Justice, Artists in Schools, Veterans in the Arts: a clear theme of compassion, vision and a brighter future. Almost all of our grants go to low-budget organizations, many are store-front non-profits, making the CAC the main supporter of grassroots arts activity in the state – keeping traditions alive and starting new ones.

In 5 ½ years, building on a strong but underfunded and understaffed base, Craig went about the business of carefully reconstructing a framework and a culture that had been worn down by economic difficulties and competing priorities.  When a $2 million one-time windfall came to the CAC for the 2014 cycle through the efforts of Council members, the signal that the Council was roaring back became clear. New programs emerged, new energies were unleashed, and that was followed by a significant increase to our base funding, and then more one-time funds. Barely able to appreciate the accomplishments, Staff and Council worked tirelessly to do right by California and to exemplify the vision of the Governor and the Legislature with an artistic output and collective action worthy of the State of California.

When Craig’s final day comes about at the end of this month, we will not be saying goodbye to our colleague and friend. His influence, his deft hand at all matters sensitive and subtle, the fantastically talented and devoted staff he has brought on to serve us for decades to come – these will be constant reminders of what Craig accomplished on our behalf. And his vision will surely surface in other ways: the arts community in California will pull him back for something.

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Donn Harris and Craig Watson with Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and NEA Chair Jane Chu at Youth Radio in Oakland.

I was fortunate enough to work with Craig for three years beginning in my first Council term, with two years serving as the Chair of the 11-member Council. We are not an easy bunch, and Craig handled us deftly. He got what he could out of each of us, and had his tenure been longer he would have elevated us even more. We traveled together, made decisions together, expanded the reach of our message, stumbled through a challenge or two, learned from each other (more me from him), and have come to this place where a transition is in the making. We will have time to reflect and celebrate. We will have time to close out this chapter and to appreciate the accomplishments that took place with Craig at the helm.

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CAC Council and Staff selfie from a recent planning retreat.

In closing, I would like to pay Craig Watson the ultimate compliment. Always in the limelight, with every action scrutinized, analyzed, critiqued from angles that were so unique and unexpected that we were often in amazement if not shock, Craig managed to maintain grace under intense pressure, kindness when others may have offered something less than that, cool professionalism when many would have retreated or overreacted. And behind closed doors, when discussions were necessarily private or confidential, when so often we hear the preface: ‘Off the record . . .’ followed by some not-for-prime-time statement, I can unequivocally say that Craig Watson never headed in that direction. What he said in those moments was the same thing he would have said had he been at a podium before hundreds of people. It’s called doing the right thing – a rarity these days.

Leaving on his own terms, taking his time to wind down and prepare the CAC for his successor, able to appreciate the accolades that will come his way – we should all move on so gracefully. Even in his departure, Craig Watson has set an example for us, and we could do no better than to appreciate his tenure, celebrate his time as our state arts leader, and be inspired by a man who can say to himself, “job well done,” and know that we agree with him fully.


donn_harrisDonn K. Harris is the Chair of the California Arts Council and Executive Director, ArtsCenter, San Francisco Unified School District.

2 thoughts on “Guest Post: They Call It Legacy

  1. Photos selected by Caitlin Fitzwater, the CAC Communications Chief. Juan Devis of the Council took the B&W one with the great resolution, and also suggested and held the camera for the selfie; I think Caitlin herself took the Oakland photo with Jane Chu and Libby Schaaf. Those are great snapshots of our time – serious, playful, in various locations, with important elected officials who valued us and understood the benefit of the arts for their communities.

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  2. What a lovely, well-written, and well-deserved tribute. Thank you Donn, for putting into words what many of us feel. Craig, it was a privilege to work by your side! You have served California — and its arts communities, large and small, in every corner of the state — with grace and brilliance.

    Liked by 1 person

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