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Can serious public funding for culture ever happen in Seattle?

An Olympia bill promises ongoing local support for cultural institutions like the Seattle Aquarium. Credit: 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.

This is huge. Take the example of a major arts organization in Seattle (annual budget above $20 million), which would receive about $1.5 million a year. Compare that to what, for example, the Seattle Opera now gets from public funds:  about $150,000 from the city’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, about $50,000 from 4Culture, which is funded by a portion of hotel-motel taxes, about $25,000 from NEA and zero from the state. That total of less than a quarter-million, estimates Kelly Tweeddale of the Opera, is about half the public funding of 20 years ago, when the Opera’s budget, now about $22 million, was much smaller.

As those numbers suggest, Seattle and the state are among the most miserly in arts funding in the nation. Here, for instance, are some funding figures for the arts by various cities in 2001, according to a study by what was then called the Seattle Arts Commission: San Francisco (using hotel taxes), $36 million; Denver, $35 million; Pittsburgh, $28 million; Portland, $4 million; Austin, $4 million; and Seattle, $1.5 million.

Making matters worse, Seattle has been creating a fragile arts bubble for itself. Budgets now greatly outstrip public funding, even while corporate funding shifts to social services and tech companies are far less generous to the arts than traditional corporations. During the boom years of the 1990s, for instance, Seattle’s growth rate of budgets for cultural institutions was 58 percent, second only to Boston and double that of San Francisco, according to a study of 10 leading arts cities by the Boston Foundation. And yet Seattle’s growth rate of donated income, 95 percent, was far behind Boston’s (250 percent) and San Francisco’s (155 percent). 

Seattle particularly under-invests in mid-sized arts organizations ($1.5-5 million in budget), with only 10 percent growth in the 1990s compared to 120 percent growth in Minneapolis. Consider, sadly, the list of fatalities in mid-sized Seattle groups in the last decade or so: The Group Theater, Aha! Theater, Alice B. Theater, Empty Space Theatre, Northwest Chamber Orchestra, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival/Seattle, PONCHO, and periods of going dark for Intiman and ACT.

Intiman's 2012 staging of John Patrick Shanley's "Dirty Story." Credit: Intiman Theater

Mitigating this bleak picture is the Legislature’s promise (after years of haggling) to direct to King County arts about $10 million a year in money from the payment of stadium bonds for King County. But that wouldn’t be until 2021, and remains subject to revocation by the Legislature.

Breaking the curse and importing the Denver idea have not been easy. At first, the sponsoring group, the Prosperity Partnership, hoped to create a four-county district, spreading the tax base and spreading the funding to fledgling groups in the suburbs and cities such as Tacoma and Everett. That proved politically too steep a hill, given mistrust of Seattle outside the city. Gradually, other counties got interested in having this taxing authority, with Spokane and Yakima interested now and others for later.

The appeal to the public is strong and understandable, as the funding goes to a large number of family-friendly institutions like zoos and aquariums and science centers, and to many, many arts groups with their loyal audiences, volunteers and participants.

Other advantages: overhead is low, and the cost is maybe $25 a year per person in new sales taxes since the base is so broad. And this is public funding for the arts rather than the complicated, micromanaged government funding. That last point, disentangling government priorities from the arts by shifting to simpler, public funding, authorized by the general public, strikes me as a key advantage of this Denver-originated model. As painter Larry Rivers once joked, government in the arts “is like a gorilla threading a needle — at first cute, then clumsy, and most of all impossible.”

After six years of trying in Olympia, this is the first time a measure has been reported out of committee for a possible floor vote (if Senate Rules concurs on Tuesday). The prime sponsor in the Senate is Sen. Hill, who chairs Ways and Means (and faces a tough race in the coming election). Hill, a Harvard MBA and Microsoft alum of generally conservative mien, regularly raves about how much his mother, in his hometown of Denver, loves that city’s funding scheme and flourishing arts. 

Over in the House, advocates for the program have an ambivalent champion in Rep. Carlyle, who is a co-sponsor of the bill, but he says he won’t release it from his Finance Committee, which he chairs, without Republican concessions on other issues. Carlyle pushed for several key changes in HB 2212, which were duly incorporated, but still no vote. One Carlyle change would allow counties to enact the funding by a vote of the county council, or by the people. That’s a likely deal-killer for Republicans, who mostly oppose any tax increases without a vote of the people, but it is probably a bargaining chip.

Carlyle, a brainy and energetic legislator whose district includes Seattle Center and all those arts mavens on Queen Anne, says he wants a win-win compromise and admits he’s losing sleep over the matter. It’s not unusual for Democrats to praise the arts but not fund them, since any vote to fund the arts is immediately attacked by their stronger constituency groups such as social services or education. Carlyle says “it would be very hard for me to come home to my Seattle district with a plan to fund the arts and no money for solving Metro’s pending cuts in bus service.” In six years of lobbying Olympia, advocates for the Cultural Access Fund have regularly run into this kind of yes-no-later reaction, as arts funding is held hostage by higher priorities.

Given these political realities, advocates for this idea, a coalition called Cultural Access Washington, have chosen to play an “inside game” in Olympia, hoping that the politically delicate bill would slide through in some session in a last-minute shuffling of poker chips. This year, the Cultural Access Washington coalition was better organized and stirred up lots of prominent and grass-roots advocates to lean on key legislators. In Denver, by contrast, the campaign was very public, which rallied lots of zoo-lovers and many other passionate audiences. Denver also had, at the start, a full-blown crisis with its symphony on the financial rocks.

If the measure can’t clear the Legislature this session (or next), Seattle too may have a few full-on crisis situations to put into the mix.

Photo of MOHAI's Rainer "R" courtesy of hey skinny/Flickr.

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