Why hard times can be good times for the arts

In Seattle and Olympia, we cut back on the arts. In Toronto and England, they seize the opportunities.
In Seattle and Olympia, we cut back on the arts. In Toronto and England, they seize the opportunities.

Arts funding continued its broad retreat in these parts, despite all those kind words about attracting the "creative class" by having cities with rich cultural lives. The City of Seattle cut its rather paltry arts budget this year. In Olympia, hopes to stabilize King Country arts funding (oddly, it comes through the state, since the county some years ago washed its hands of arts funding) were shot down along with other stadium taxes, in what's become a yearly mortification rite.

Then there was the new measure, pushed by arts interests across four Puget Sound counties (King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap), to levy a small sales tax increase (about $25 per year, per household) to provide funding for small and large arts groups as well as zoos, history museums, botanical gardens and the like. This plan, modeled on the Denver scheme, would give Seattle and its metropolitan area the most generous public funding for the arts in the nation. It never made it out of committee.

The usual reason: arts are just dandy but we can't afford to do much in hard times about "frills." Oh really? Here are two inspiring examples to the contrary.

The first comes from Toronto, a simply splendid city where I recently spent a stretch of time. The city and Ontario are of course hard hit by the economy, particularly the Detroit-related downturns. So it just increased its already generous ($45 million) funding for the arts, all across the metropolitan region. (Toronto's government is regional in scope.) Mayor David Miller, a leader of the Toronto Renaissance, was quoted in the April 3 Toronto Star — did I mention that Toronto has four daily newspapers? — as saying, "Arts funding is always money well spent....Those are investments that become even more important where the economy's weak."

Toronto is so bought into the views of Richard Florida, guru of growth by attracting the creative class, that they've installed him in high office in the province. Rita Davies, executive director of culture in Toronto, lays out the doctrine Seattle espouses but does not fund: "People who are highly mobile and can work anywhere in the world, they look for a city that has certain attributes. They want a rich cultural life, they want a city with buzz, they want a city with a sense of connections, and those are all the things the arts give to a city." Toronto isn't resting on its oars in this intense competition for artistic excellence.

The second inspirational bit comes from England, where the government has a modest subsidy program to breathe new life into vacant shops on High Streets by letting artists lease vacant spaces for three years, normally rotating artists through the spaces on six-month residencies. They make art, they display it, they teach it, and they demystify art by putting it right out there amid the shoppers. They also help ward off a downward slide in a retail district with too many boarded-up shops, putting these places back on the buzz radar. Reports The Guardian, "the recession is a moment of possibility."

Not around here. We regard hard times as moments of impossibility.


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