The FY 11 Arts Budget: Is My Hair On Fire?

There is concern about the state of arts funding in D.C., including the potential for a tax on live performance. Policy-makers must find money to preserve social services, and it’s reasonable to be concerned. The arts are frequently pitted against social services in funding battles. However, due to regular and informed advocacy over the last 48 months, it seems likely that the arts will not be cut further.

The Safety Net for the District’s most needy was a major issue in last year’s budget deliberations, and it remains a major concern this year. The budget fight happening in the District is mirrored in similar fights across the country. The Americans for the Arts are tracking budget debates nationwide, and they recently shared an article which noted,

“Children’s welfare supporters faced off against art advocates in Sacramento because of a proposal to spend a half million dollars on new exhibits at the future Crocker Art Museum…. ‘We’re in a crisis. We’re in a situation where kids are going to die,’ child advocate Bob Wilson said.”

That terrible crisis occurring within California’s budget battle highlights two things: that the most important social service politicians can provide – long term – is sound fiscal policy; and that the biggest mistake arts advocates can make right now is to turn a blind eye to the most needy. Arts advocates must speak out to preserve arts education, arts investment, and public art. But we should also be fighting for affordable housing, meals for the homeless, and education. Because we are in a down economy, it is critical that arts advocates take the time to inform themselves, and participate in these discussions intelligently. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “We’re each entitled to our own set of opinions, not our own set of facts.”

The proposed FY 11 budget includes a 10% cut for the arts this year, which is in line with general reductions in development spending. Due to no fault of their own, many city Safety Net programs have been decimated by the economic decline, including, as an example, low income housing. The Housing Trust Fund, which supported affordable housing for the most needy in the District, had grown over the last decade based on a dedicated appropriation allocating15 percent of deed recordation and transfer taxes (from sale of real estate) to the fund. But when the market crashed, and people stopped buying homes, the fund also crashed, and money for low-income housing projects disappeared.

Policy-makers have to find new revenue streams because money for existing programs has disappeared. Last year, the council took a number of steps, including: DC’s general sales tax rate was increased from 5.75 percent to 6 percent; The Cigarette tax was raised from $2 per pack to $2.50; The Gasoline tax was raised from 20 cents per gallon to 23.5 cents, matching the rate in Maryland, and revenues from the tax were moved from DC’s highway trust fund to the city’s general fund. With all of the things they did do last year, there were a number of things that they considered, and did not do. One example is a tax on live theater performances.

In some ways, a ticket tax would make sense. Last year, Ed Lazere, Director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, wrote a post in Greater Greater Washington, suggesting that the city should impose a theater ticket tax. He noted, “If you go to an event at the Verizon Center or a Nationals game, the ticket sales tax is 10 percent. Movie tickets are taxed at the basic rate of 5.75 percent. But people who buy tickets to theater performances — plays, musicals, opera, dance, etc. — don’t pay any sales tax at all.” Ed was one of the people responsible for securing the housing trust fund appropriation mentioned earlier, and is a respected voice in public policy considerations.

When the DC Advocates for the Arts visited with Councilmember Kwame Brown last year protesting arts funding cuts, his staff discussed the possibility of a dedicated tax for the arts generated from a ticket tax. Before the bill could even be introduced, however, arts businesses, already completely strapped by the down economy, were successful in convincing policy-makers that the proposal would actually reduce total revenues. (A tax would effectively make ticket prices more expensive, and this could affect number of tickets sold.) This year, again, council members want to raise revenue so that they can save programs. So again this year, a lot of ideas are being floated, including the same theater tax idea. Given that it’s election season, it’s unlikely that arts interests will be completely ignored to raise a small amount of tax revenue. The DC Advocates for the Arts will keep you informed as the budget debates proceed, and we hope that you will participate to whatever extent you are able.

Citizen Artistry

About the support necessary for artists to make enemies and influence people

Dance critic Claudia La Rocco published a piece on her WNYC performance club blog recently exploring the notion of Artistic Citizenry. The topic is trenchant; from Shepard Fairey to the White House it seems that Americans are engaging with political issues through art. Nothing particulary new, but for this generation the energy is rising toward artistic political engagement.

Many artists today – including Fairey – clearly work from a personal sense of activism. La Rocco’s post, titled The Art of Citizenship, explores some of the issues raised with that type of engagement. She notes, “We tend to have broad stereotypes of what it means for an artist to be a good citizen: making work that protests Vietnam, doing community workshops for impoverished children, etc. … For me, bound up in the idea of being an activist is a certain form of resistance, of re-thinking our assumptions.” La Rocco’s words express her understanding of the potential for artists to influence the issues of their day; citizen artistry as counter-culture, independence, and progress.


On the same day that La Rocco published her piece, the Boston Globe published a visual celebration of the People’s Republic of China’s 60th birthday celebrations. Included in that set of images is the image to the left, which carries the description: “Dancers from the National Ballet of China performs the “Red Detachment of Women” ballet at the Tanggu Great Theater, part of the celebration of China’s 60th anniversary, in Tianjin, September 26, 2009. The “Red Detachment of Women” is a full-length Chinese ballet depicting a peasant woman’s journey into the PLA, combining Western dance style with Chinese cultural elements. (REUTERS/Jason Lee)” These two items represent two sides of the spectrum of Artistic Citizenry. On the one side is independence, and on the other, direct service to political power. The recent NEA scandal shows that even in the United States we may be vulnerable to artistic citizenry directly harnessed by political power.

The La Times Culture Monster blog has done a nice job tracking the recent NEA scandal which focused around an Aug. 10 teleconference “in which the NEA’s communications director urged members of the arts community to help Obama’s efforts to spur volunteer community service.” Analyzing the scandal, conservative journalist/novelist Andrew Klavan wrote,

“Lets just talk about art. It’s hard out here on us creative types right now. When times are tough, truth and beauty sink pretty low on the national shopping list. The NEA, according to its own website, is the nations largest annual funder of the arts. It gives tens of millions of dollars a year in grants to artists and art organizations. It does this, according to the legislation that established it, to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent. It is there, in other words, to protect artists freedom from the corrupting influence of financial deprivation… It doesn’t matter that [the NEA] didn’t actually offer these artists money in exchange for propaganda; its very presence on the line constituted an implied offer of access.”

La Rocco cites a risk for citizen artists of “being shrill or didactic, of circling the wagons to such an extent that you can’t see what’s on the other side, that no one gets in and out.” Another risk is becoming pawns in the chess games of politicians. Modern artists are dependent on foundations – government and private – to make their work. And while a liberal sensibility may naturally emanate from modern art, many artists feel a reasonable pull toward patronage of funder ideas. I wrote in a piece about arts earmarks a while back that,

“Everyone likes people who give them money. We’ll bring you flowers if you let us… [But] if you make the arts community a petting zoo, that’s all its gonna be. You have to take yourself out of the equation. The work we’re doing isn’t meaningless. You need to respect it beyond politics. It’s like religion. It’s art. Please participate, and get out of the way.”

A choreographer I worked for a few years ago told me a story about when Yvonne Rainer came to perform in Washington. She was planning to do a piece in which her dancers wore the American flag. The producers had some qualms about the production, and Rainer was called to a meeting. I was told that Rainer wore an American flag – only – when she went to the meeting, and that when told she couldn’t wear it, she took it off and conducted the rest of the meeting in the buff. The compromise that was reached allowed a flag to be placed on the floor of the dance space; Rainer purchased a flag that filled almost the entire floor, including the entry-way, forcing performers and many audience to walk on the flag.

The story reminds me that independence is a choice for each artist. Still, independence of thought – as understood by all types of citizens – is a value that needs supporting. Artists’ careers grow secure fostering their connections with like-minded groups. Artistic citizenry can be nurtured not just by critics, but by the funding community.

Conclusion: We hit what we aim at

I wrote a post a while ago about how to be an artist I was needing to be more an administrator. I wrote that if we work hard, and are lucky, we hit what we aim at. While I wanted to aim at being an artist, I realized that to do that I had to aim at being more of an administrator.

I just saw an article that reminded me how – in the industry – we hit what we aim at, too. The article, titled “Low Pay a Problem for Dance Sector” by Lalayn Baluch reports on the Arts Council England’s (ACE) findings that many dancers earn very little money. The ACE study will be used to develop ACE’s new national arts strategy, which will be published in 2010.

Arts Council England has raised concerns over the “sustainability” of careers and leadership within dance, after research revealed that 23% of people working in the sector earned less than £5,000 last year. The funding body’s Dance Mapping report – the largest piece of research of its kind – described the dance workforce as “highly educated”, with 62% of people in the sector holding a degree. However, it also revealed that 38% only earned between £5,000 and £20,000 in 2008/9.

ACE fears that the low pay will affect the sustainability of careers, leadership and the ability for “potential dance champions to emerge”. Responding to the findings, ACE director of dance strategy Janet Archer, said the sector needs to “generate the confidence to value itself and position itself assertively”.

She said: “[Dance] artists and producers will often elect to work for nothing or very little, in order to get things done. It should not be acceptable for talented people to rely on passion alone to fuel their work.

As a dancer, I appreciate the study, and the ‘you should value yourself’ stuff.  I had been really uncertain of my self-worth, but now that someone else says it’s wrong we get paid so little, I feel much better. It’s just unfortunate that everything she said is completely useless blather. It looks to me like this person wants to find reasons to pump more funding into a specific type of funding program, and she’s found her ammunition to get it done with this study.

empty-stageWe exist in a (global) economy which sets prices on things. Don’t you think that journalists would love to ‘value themselves’ more? If more people wanted to pay to see dance, and wanted to pay more to see it, dancers would make more money. As musicians, bakers, painters, and car-makers. One of the problems with the non-profit world is that it seems to have no understanding of economics. Non-profit industry maintains a revenue stream (donations, foundations) that for profits do not. But it still exists in the economy, and the basic laws still apply.

If arts administrators are clueless about economics, they develop pie-in-the-sky clueless solutions for artists. You can’t fake an understanding of how the world works. I think it would be real progress to see all arts administrators going through basic econ, statistics, micro, and macro classes. I’m certain the impact on the field would be immense.

The article goes on:

“We have many outstanding dance leaders working in the field. Unfortunately, many choose to leave to pursue more realistic career options.” Archer said that ACE acknowledged that dance needs more investment, and that more should be done to help and support dance artists and create opportunities for them to work. “Dance is highly trained profession and yet the bleak reality is that personal earnings from dance continue to be low,” she added.

In the sense of “we hit what we aim at”: funders want to understand the scene, and be able to help. In my roll as chair of the DC Advocates for the Arts I see the work, and the genuine desire to really help. Part of that is looking for efficiency, to make the most of what they can offer. The desire to help is real. But when funders try to unhook the arts profession from every other profession, they develop wasteful solutions.

I think larger arts fellowships, and more of them, would be great. But the number of individuals and organizations seeking funding will probably always be far, far, far larger than any foundation can support. It’s not nearly as sexy, but efficiency in funding would probably have a larger impact than ‘creativity’ in funding.