Anteing up for the arts by Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s own blog.


musical notes 2Massachusetts is a world-class laggard when it comes to public support of the arts, and things could get even worse.  The Massachusetts House just cut funding for the Mass. Cultural Council (MCC) by $2 million, to $12.2 million. (Originally, House Ways & Means  had tried to cut twice than amount.) There’s still time for the Senate to restore the MCC to at least the $14 million level funding that Governor Charlie Baker had proposed, but it will take public pressure to move them.

Twelve million may sound like a lot of money, but MCC grants are split among arts, culture, the humanities and science. What it does provide for individual artists and community arts projects is spread across the state. At its peak, in 2002, the MCC received more than $19 million for its activities.

But the state creates a problem in more than just its limp provision of grants.  If cities and towns want to dedicate a revenue stream to the arts, they must first get the state legislature to sign off on it.   You’d think that a legislature that has cut its its own arts program would be inclined to give the go-ahead to cities and towns.  There’s not a lot of optimism that that will happen.

Cities and counties around the country where the arts do best are those that have dedicated streams of revenue earmarked for the arts. Think  New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis,  and even Detroit. Sometimes this takes the form of a small piece of the sales tax; sometimes, part of the hotel/motel tax; and sometimes  it’s a tiny percentage of the property tax. Cleveland dedicates cigarette tax monies, which yields $15 million a year. Chicago arts get $34 million from a small piece of the hotel/motel tax as well as a percentage of property taxes (millage).

Some critics say the arts are frills, but logic, reasoning and memorization aren’t the only paths to intellectual growth.  Creativity is another path to understanding and wisdom.  Other critics say government shouldn’t decide what is or isn’t art through the grants it provides. But the arts have always had patrons. In the early days, it was the Church. Then it was wealthy patrons, usually royals. In the 20th century, states started to play an important role and, at the federal level, the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities.

Today, cities recognize they have a vested interest in supporting the arts.  It goes beyond creating the kind of quality-of-life that attracts workers and businesses.  The arts help drive the economy. Studies have shown that the nation’s arts “industry” generates more than $60 billion directly, supporting more than 4 million full-time jobs well over $20 billion to federal, state and local governments. The arts pay directly through payroll and purchase of goods and services. Another $75 billion is generated indirectly by patron spending at restaurants, parking garages, hotels, and retail stores.  Nationally, the  $135 billion total far exceeds the pittance ($4 billion) in government disbursals to the arts.

Locally, the arts make a huge economic impact. For example, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s economic impact in Suffolk County and statewide  is around $200 million. The BSO’s Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox has defined the economy of the Berkshires as a center for arts and culture. (Disclosure: I’ve been involved with the BSO for 20+ years.) The Boston Ballet, the Museum of Fine Arts and other arts organizations all contribute to the branding of our region and bolster its vibrant tourism sector. Many of these organizations contribute significant resources to  public education, including Young Audiences, which brings performing artists right into the schools.

Julie Burros, Mayor Marty Walsh’s new “arts czar,” recently laid out her vision for arts and culture in Boston to a group of senior learners at Brandeis University.  It’s a tribute to the Mayor that he was able to lure her here from a similar position in Chicago, especially given Chicago’s high level of public funding of arts.  But Burros’ pretty power point presentation (detailing many community forums, inviting citizen input on what the people want and need) will amount to little more than a feel-good demonstration of optics if the city can’t appropriate funds, including from a dedicated revenue stream.

Burros insists that the Walsh administration is intent on moving in that direction. But the Mayor just joined a movement to dedicate one percent of the property tax to housing and parks.  That cause is worthy, but it’s hard to imagine the Mayor now would go for another bite at the tax add-on apple.

A study by The Boston Foundation released in January noted that Boston ranks high among comparable cities nationwide in the number of arts organization per capita but lower than the others in both public support and foundation grants. Congratulations to the Mayor for making arts and culture a priority, but, before we bestow a laurel wreath, let’s see how aggressively he pushes for a dedicated funding stream. It’s the most powerful way to put his money where his mouth is.

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