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'The MITT,' Gerard Tsutakawa, 1999, bronze sculpture by Safeco Field, Seattle. Washington State Public Facilities District Collection. photo by Michael Myers.

'The MITT,' Gerard Tsutakawa, 1999, bronze sculpture by Safeco Field, Seattle. Washington State Public Facilities District Collection. photo by Michael Myers.


On And Off The Dole

Marcie Sillman

The latest economic reports indicate we're finally emerging from the long recession. But try telling that to Washington state's public officials. From Governor Gregoire on down, politicians here face huge budget shortfalls. They're coping the only way they can — big cuts. And that includes cuts to arts funding. For half a century, public sector investment has helped build Washington's cultural infrastructure. What happens when the well runs dry? Marcie Sillman reports in the second story in our series "Culture Shock."


It all comes down to money, or the lack of it. That was the takeaway from Washington Governor Chris Gregoire's 2011 State of the State address to the Legislature.

Gregoire: "While there are signs of economic recovery around us, state government's budget remains in a deep freeze, and with a revenue shortfall unprecedented in state history, you will have extraordinarily difficult budget choices."

Washington lawmakers face a budget gap of more than $4 billion. The Governor has proposed slashing everything from health care for the poor and state parks funding, to the Washington state Arts Commission.

Gregoire: "I eliminated the Commission, and I put the function of making sure we retain that art we still have in the state over to the Department of Commerce."

If the Legislature approves the Governor's proposal, state arts funding will go from more than $1 million in 2010 to $250,000 this year. The Governor believes that's the minimum financial requirement to keep Washington state eligible for federal arts money.

Corson: "I think it's a big, big slap in the face."

Dan Corson is a Seattle–based artist. He thinks the Governor's proposal to do away with an independent State Arts Commission sends a signal to the general public that art isn't important. Corson understands that everybody has to share the pain of a bad economy. But instead of cuts, he'd rather see a job creation program, like the Great Depression's Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Corson: "The WPA model was about using professional artists, to fund them to record what was going on at the time and to infuse art into the community and to inspire."

Nobody in any state or local arts agency is seriously considering funding an artist corps right now. They're just trying to hang on to what they've got. Jim Kelly directs 4Culture. It's a public agency that funds about 300 arts and heritage programs in King County. Kelly says contemporary politicians don't have the same attitude toward public spending they did during the Great Depression, or even 40 years ago, during the Boeing Bust. That's when the Seattle Arts Commission was created, along with public art programs at the state and county levels.

Kelly: "There was a mindset in the early 1970s about vision for the future, making people feel better about where they were — that is a very different mindset than there is today. I think we are too focused on addressing the budget deficit through cuts and not enough on investments."

It's a subject Kelly has contemplated long and hard in recent years. Right now 80 percent of 4Culture's budget comes from a share of a tax on King County hotel rooms. The tax continues for another decade, but 4Culture's share expires at the end of 2012.

The state Legislature enacted the tax, and only state lawmakers have the authority to decide to extend 4Culture's portion. For the past six legislative sessions, Jim Kelly has travelled to Olympia to make his case that arts and cultural programs deserve public support.

Kelly: "So often when I talk to legislators, the initial response I get is maybe, you know, but people are dying, people are hungry, we don't have homes for them. How can we fund the arts when I can't fund these other things?"

Kelly argues that art isn't a money pit — in King County it's an economic engine. And he's got the numbers to back him up. A new study of almost 300 county arts and heritage organizations shows they generated almost $2 billion in business activity in 2009. They supported more than 29,000 jobs, and resulted in $78 million in tax revenue. At least one local politician is convinced. King County Executive Dow Constantine says he'll push to extend 4Culture's share of the lodging tax this year, as part of his economic development plan for the county.

Even if 4Culture keeps its funding, some observers in the arts community wonder whether traditional public arts agencies are hopelessly out of date.

Fife: "I think we're in a time period asking what is the role of governments across the board?"

Andy Fife directs a Seattle–based organization called Shunpike. It helps artists and arts organizations with business, management and fundraising. Fife sees the economic crisis as an opportunity for arts agencies at all government levels to reexamine how they do business.

Fife: "We can't just have some people behind a fairly opaque wall handing out money. We need something a little more transparent that is serving the interest of the people. So instead of saying that means we shouldn't support the arts, we should ask the question, how should we be supporting the arts?"

Trapnell: "We can have different conversations if there's no money."

Arts consultant Susan Trapnell isn't happy about the decline in public funding for the arts. But she sees a possible silver lining.

Trapnell: "Because as long as there's money, you're kind of thinking, how can I get some of it? With no money we stop talking about that and look at what do we want the community to look like from an arts perspective, what do we want that to look like in 20 years?"

Trapnell says it's hard to see the big picture when you've circled the wagons to protect your slice of the funding pie.

4Culture's Jim Kelly says it's all well and good to open up a conversation about the meaning of art and its inherent social value. But at the end of the day, Kelly says there won't be any cultural organizations to talk about unless lawmakers agree to keep their public funding in place.

Kelly: "People don't want to hear of the inherent value of the arts. They want to know, if I put a dollar into the arts I'm going to get a dollar and a half back."

While lawmakers and arts advocates wrestle over government support, thousands of arts organizations across Washington state watch and wait. For them the conversation about the role of public money in the cultural sector isn't philosophical. It's about survival.

I'm Marcie Sillman, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

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