California Arts Council

State of California

California Arts Council Blog


Driving the Arts

In 1994, something new burst upon the California scene...a specialty license plate sporting, and supporting, art. Wayne Thiebaud painted "Coastline" specifically to be a background for vehicle license plates--and donated his copyrighted image to the California Arts Council. It has proven to be a gift that goes on giving!

The idea was to create an iconic image symbolizing California, the California that non-Californians think of when they think of us. Palm trees, ocean, sunshine,'s all there on the plate, with a touch of pop art's cheeky humor. When driven outside our borders, it's an unofficial ambassador for our state, attracting attention and making people smile everywhere it goes.

The plate was a hit. And since sales of the "Coastline" plate fund arts programs in every corner of California, as plates were ordered teaching artists appeared in classrooms; arts programs enlivened libraries, senior centers, day care and nursing homes; prisoners acquired new life skills through the focus and collaboration required by art and theater; downtowns were spruced up and civic pride blossomed in neglected communities. The plates did more than make cars snazzier. They helped us fulfill our mission: Advancing California through the arts and creativity.

During the years when our budget was more in line with other states' arts councils, the arts license plate provided a nice supplement to our "normal" resources.Then, during 2002-2003, the California Arts Council lost 93% of its funding--and the arts license plate became a vital lifeline, enabling us to provide bare-bones assistance to artists and arts organizations during the lean decade that followed. Without it, we might have ceased to exist.

In November of 2009, then-First Lady Maria Shriver dropped in on one of our Council Meetings. At that time, we were celebrating a victory four years in the making: The Franchise Tax Board had finally agreed with us that the purchase of an arts license plate should be considered tax deductible, as a charitable contribution to the California Arts Council. Maria lit up, in her inimitable way, when the Council floated an idea: There are nearly 30 million vehicles in California. If just one million of them bore arts license plates, that would mean a secure funding stream for the arts council in the neighborhood of forty million dollars annually--more than compensating for our loss of support from the state's general fund.

Thus was born the Million Plates for the Arts Drive.

The First Lady saw no reason why we couldn't sell a million arts license plates by Christmas. (Remember, this was November.) We are sure we will reach this goal. We just don't know which Christmas it will be.

Then-Chair Malissa Feruzzi Shriver tackled the project with enthusiasm and determination. She spent months buttonholing celebrities who signed up to be "arts drivers" and lend their faces to our campaign. Her tireless efforts--ably assisted by William Turner and the rest of the Council--laying the groundwork, made the campaign possible. We also called upon the talents of designers at Industrial Creative and marketer Sean Watson of 24Connect.

But nothing moves quickly in government. State agencies are notoriously cautious.They are also slow to embrace the new. The staff has been patiently unraveling red tape for five years, and--as anyone who has recently put up Christmas lights will understand--there has been many a time when we've thought we'd untied the last knot, only to encounter another snarl. But! Recently we experienced a real breakthrough. After working on it so long, we're still pinching ourselves; it's hard to believe it's finally in place.

A dedicated website for ordering arts license plates is up and running: .And on that website, at long last, is a feature that represents a huge change: the ability to purchase an arts license plate as a gift.

Technically, it's not a gift card. It's a "voucher." (A gift card works like cash; you can use it to buy any number of things. Our vouchers are only redeemable for an arts license plate.) But it behaves much like a gift card--you purchase it, give it, and the recipient redeems it by going to the website and entering a code.

This may not strike you as revolutionary. Trust us. It is.

We envision movie studios and other creative industry leaders giving arts license plates to their associates, employees and fleet operators as part of their end-of-year giving...we imagine a philanthropist making a "matching contribution" to enable us to sell arts license plates at a discount (something we can't do otherwise, since the price is set by law)...we picture the arts license plate taking off like the Pet Rock, the Cabbage Patch Doll, and the Furby, becoming some year's "must have" holiday gift...okay, the last one is a real long shot, but hey. It could happen. By which we mean, the tools are in place. The product is on the shelf. All we need now is a tsunami of good, old-fashioned enthusiasm.

Now that the arts license plate voucher card program is here, we dare to dream!


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