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Can serious public funding for culture ever happen in Seattle?

The city and state are notoriously stingy with public dollars for arts and culture. Now, a 10-year effort to broaden the base has run into a classic Olympia log jam.
An Olympia bill promises ongoing local support for cultural institutions like the Seattle Aquarium.

An Olympia bill promises ongoing local support for cultural institutions like the Seattle Aquarium. afagen/Flickr

Ten years ago, a small group met at Town Hall Seattle for an informal briefing on arts funding by the just-elected mayor of Denver (now governor) John Hickenlooper. The charismatic, arts-loving mayor explained how Denver, starting in 1989, had come up with a much-admired system for generous and stable public funding for arts and scientific institutions (zoos, botanical gardens, science centers, etc.).

From that meeting grew a widening movement to import the Denver model to this state. This Tuesday in Olympia, all that work faces a big vote in the Republican-led Senate Rules Committee that would be the crucial step in authorizing local voters to enact such a plan. It would come not a moment too soon, as many of these institutions, hard-pressed by the recession, are in dire need. Moreover, we are a state and city notably stingy in public support of the arts. (Disclosure time: I was involved in the early years of trying to shape this plan, but have not played any active role in the past three years.)

Given the partisan warfare in Olympia, however, don’t hold your breath for this session. It’s hard enough getting the Republican-controlled Senate to allow a vote that permits an increase in taxes (even with a requirement of local voters enacting the increase). It may be harder still to get the Democratic House to enact such a measure unless the GOP yields on issues such as additional funding for K-12 education and for Metro buses. The showdown pits Sen. Andy Hill, a Republican from Redmond who is pushing for the Cultural Access Fund but having trouble getting enough caucus votes, and Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Democrat from Queen Anne who is co-sponsor of the House version. Carlyle says he won’t move the bill out of his Finance Committee without Republicans delivering votes on education and transit.

The bills in question, SB 6151, and its House equivalent, HB 2212, would enable individual counties, upon a local vote, to levy 0.1 percent of sales tax (or an equivalent amount by property tax) that would be divvied up among arts, scientific and heritage organizations for a seven-year period. The Legislature is not itself raising taxes, but simply authorizing that to be done (or nixed) by voters at the county level. In Denver, the program is voted on each 10 years, with the recent vote in 2004 passing by a large margin over seven participating counties. The money would be transformative in the Seattle area, while in smaller counties it would be strong fertilizer.

Here’s how it would work locally if authorized by Olympia and then enacted by the voters of King County. It would raise about $47 million a year. The first 10 percent would go to schools, for arts and science education and for support of trips to arts and science institutions. The next big chunk, about $32 million a year, would go to “regional institutions,” defined as non profits in arts and science (including the Science Center, Aquarium, Zoo, MOHAI) whose annual budgets exceed $1,250,000, and who draw attendance from the wider region. The money would be awarded on the basis of budget size and attendance, and could be used for general operations (the most precious of all funding). No regional organization could receive more than 15 percent of its budget from the Cultural Access funds. There are about 37 eligible regional organizations in King County, covering arts, museums and heritage projects.

The last slice, about $10 million, would go to smaller organizations below that $1,250,000 budget level. These would apply for grant money on a competitive basis, with an emphasis on access, lower ticket prices, outreach to young people and underserved populations. In King County, 4Culture would be the organization overseeing the grants to “community organizations,” whose number is estimated at 226. These recipients could apply money to capital projects, and there is no 15 percent cap.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Feb 18, 5:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Why not have Nick Hanauer and Gates Family fund the program? Pocket change for the super wealthy, and pocket change is all the average taxpayer is living on...why tax them?

Cameron

Posted Tue, Feb 18, 8:57 a.m. Inappropriate

The state has spent "one percent for the arts" on numerous transportation and other public projects -- that surely is enough. I agree with Cameron. With the state scrambling to find enough money for education and numerous other needs, and all these billionaires and multi-milionaires around us, why does the public have to kick in to fund the arts? And why are the powers that be in Seattle and King County so stupidly set on using public resources to fund Hansen and Ballmer's playpen, as if those two couldn't pay for the entire thing themselves many times over?

Posted Tue, Feb 18, 11:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Let's see: land for zoo, given. The Rep, the Intiman, and the Bathhouse, given. Someone already has mentioned the one per cent for the arts (which should not always be a tangible purchase; why not one per cent, put in the operating budget?). We built SAM and Asian SAM. The opera house and symphony hall. The University of Washington has a half dozen venues. Just exactly when has the City NOT given to the arts?

The Arts needs a new business model, not more money.

Dick Falkenbury

Posted Sun, Feb 23, 8:40 a.m. Inappropriate

I very much agree.

janes

Posted Tue, Feb 18, 12:17 p.m. Inappropriate

In my experience with not-for-profit arts and literary organizations, the best ones run lean but are given the opportunity to do their best work when a windfall occurs. Each organization has a business side--development relies on donors, museum stores and cafes rely on the public--so there is a business model in place. Without public funding, an organization is mostly reliant on tourism and public interest. Tourism and public interest rely on the perception that a city has valuable social capital.
The most essential point to realize is that nonprofit organizations function as public investments: they provide education for both the public and children, and are often sites of cultural exchange. You can't put a price on this kind of investment.

nico

Posted Tue, Feb 18, 12:25 p.m. Inappropriate

Good artists abound in Seattle but most of them aren't part of Official Seattle Culture, which tends to be derivative and devoutly middle-brow. Lots of well meaning bourgeois folk anxiously sitting around trying to decipher the latest New York trend in time to jump on the band wagon. SAM? Hammering Man? Chihuly Museum?

woofer

Posted Tue, Feb 18, 2:27 p.m. Inappropriate

The best way to enjoy the Denver model for funding the arts? Move there.

Mean while the average low brow voter could care less about the arts. They don't put beans on the table, they don't make Jill a better student, and they don't offer long term job sustainability. If Seattle high brows were serious about the arts, they would woo Alice Walton to come and show them how the rich do the arts, and then twist the arms of Gates, etc. to start something along the lines of Crystal Bridges.

Djinn

Posted Tue, Feb 18, 4:36 p.m. Inappropriate

SB 5834 passed in 2011 and addressed this need, not quite to the extent you want, but it is unending.
It is the 2% on the hotel tax that is currently paying off Centurylink Field.
http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=5834&year;=2011#0

It also send 37 and 1/2 percent to workforce housing within 1/2 mile of a transit station.
It also allowed 4Culture to consume part of its endowment, to keep from going under, until taxes can be redirected to them.

Part of this has not been appropriated yet.and, it's not yet available.
King County controls it.
There is at least an arguable nexus there.

A bill I would like to see revived and passed is the "Jock Tax" Bill David Frockt was working on a couple years ago. Have that money go to fund K12 arts education state wide.

Mr Baker

Posted Tue, Feb 18, 4:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Have you ever noticed how politicians just love to try to fund arts before jobs programs?

No wonder our economy damn near collapsed in 2008.

Posted Thu, Feb 20, 1:17 p.m. Inappropriate

Arts programs are jobs programs.

talisker

Posted Sun, Feb 23, 8:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Arts programs are not jobs programs at a sustainable cost. Art is a luxury, not a staple.

Roads and bridges are crumbling infrastructure, and are in desperate shape. Put the arts money towards them for the next 5 years, then we can talk art.

Posted Tue, Feb 18, 6:36 p.m. Inappropriate

How far does the public have to go on the supply side of the economics to prop up businesses that just do not appear to have sufficient demand?

Non-profit status, publicly funded facilities, direct public funding, direct funding by affluent individuals, that's apparently not enough support.

Maybe, the arts and heritage you want funded, David, are simply not as popular among today's consumers as they once were, and their infrastructure is too big for the demand?
Maybe fewer groups should get larger shares of the existing funds?

Mediums come and go.
Maybe you're living in the past and are asking for your past to be funded forever.

Mr Baker

Posted Thu, Feb 20, 11:10 a.m. Inappropriate

So what happened on Tuesday? Did it get a floor vote? I'm dying to know!

jrice

Posted Tue, Feb 25, 3:48 p.m. Inappropriate

The measure didn't get to the Senate floor but it survived by being redefined as a budget issue, not subject to the cutoff date. It remains alive for the next few weeks. Its fate will probably be determined in last-minute log-rolling. Also encouraging: Reuven Carlyle and Andy Hill have met to iron out some differences between their versions.

Posted Tue, Feb 25, 3:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Lots of push back by the commenters. Let me emphasize that the measure would help many organizations, all across the country, including such popular institutions as Zoo, Aquarium, Science Center. In Denver, one real public benefit of this funding is reduced ticket prices and many more free days. Also, the program funds arts programs in schools, where many districts have deeply cut arts programs. And it would help cultural programs to get launched in many poor outlying towns, where the acute shortage of start-up capital stymies such groups. Pushing more arts groups out to where most people live is another public benefit. So this is far more than a subsidy for supposedly well-off arts groups. Public funding, as opposed to funding by rich people and corporations, benefits the public more. And this is the way virtually all other nations make sure that the arts are not just for enjoyment by the affluent.

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