Careful What you Wish For? On the Verge of Winning a New Tax for the Arts, the Strings Get Attached

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A two-decades-long effort to fund the arts through a countywide sales tax increase is finally close to the finish line in Olympia. The key final sprint is to allow the King County Council or the Seattle City Council to enact the 0.1 percent sales tax increase by a councilmanic vote, not a vote of skeptical voters. 

The sinuous course to this windfall for the arts is instructive for arts funding, and may end up being a careful-what-you-ask-for saga. As it happens, I was involved in the birth pangs of this idea.

It began in the early 2000s, when Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper paid a visit to Seattle, and a few of us were able to get the persuasive, arts-loving mayor to make a presentation to a group of arts activists at Town Hall Seattle. The Denver model, which a group of us hoped to import to Seattle, began in the 1980s, when Denver-area arts were being cut sharply. The plan was to raise the sales tax in seven counties by a tenth of a percent, thus raising a current level of about $60 million for the arts.

In the early days, the Denver model was bureaucratically simple: arts groups that qualified (notably the Symphony and Art Museum) plus scientific venues like the Zoo and the Botanical Garden) simply submitted two metrics (budget size and attendance figures) and back came a very large check each year for 10 years, to be spent as the institution wished. Smaller organizations had to apply to get their grants. The Science and Cultural Facilities District was enacted in 1988 by 67 percent of the voters and has passed easily a subsequent three times.

That Denver model had some very attractive features for arts funding. The money was guaranteed for each of 10 years (and then voters needed to approve its extension), and the funds could go to basic support, not for add-on, politically driven programs. Much of the new support went to free days and reduced ticket prices, but that was not required. And the supporters of the beneficiary groups were a powerful lobbying force for levy renewal. A group of us, led by ArtsFund president Peter Donnelly, set about importing the Denver model to Seattle. Decades later, a version of it has arrived, with tweaks for more equity and with a strong arts-education accent.

Thus began our sinuous marathon race. First task was to find an entity that would spearhead the effort, and most of the obvious candidates had their own fish to fry and funding sources to protect. Weirdly, it ended up at the Puget Sound Regional Council, a planning agency that wanted some softer, more appealing aspects. Money was raised, a powerful lobbyist was hired, and off the intrepid band went to Olympia.

There were several more obstacles. One was corporate interests such as Microsoft, who urged a shift from arts to arts education, arguing that school districts were cutting back arts instruction. The multi-county idea soon faded as we encountered suburban suspicions of Seattle. Another impediment was then-Speaker of the Washington House of Representatives Frank Chopp, who insisted that education had priority. A further roadblock was 4Culture, the King County arts-funding group that wanted to get its stadium-tax income buttoned down before looking at any new competing tax. Years passed, and 4Culture locked down its funding. A cobbled-together levy was finally proposed to the voters in 2017. 

That August 2017 proposal, dubbed Access for All, failed narrowly. It drew some predictable opposition (Dino Rossi, the tax-averse Seattle Times) and some surprise opponents (the arts-starved Eastside, County Councilman Larry Gossett). The advocates regrouped, shifted to a statewide effort (the better to influence the Legislature), scored an early victory in Tacoma and Olympia, and created a statewide professional advocacy coalition, Inspire Washington. The new group, well led by board chair Josh LaBelle and executive director Manny Cawaling, has effectively worked the Legislature and passed a bill in the House, HB 1575, that would grant councilmanic authority to enact the tax. 

If passed, the measure would likely lead to the enactment of the long-in-the-oven tax. Break out the champagne? Maybe, but the new hurdle would be the stipulations that each of the councils would demand. For the county, that would be geographic goodies for the outlying districts where there are few arts groups to fund. For Seattle, which might decide to go it alone (forgoing all that suburban sales tax money), the hurdles would be city council political agendas insisting on access and diversity. 

The arts in our region definitely need new funding, but this new source is likely to have lots of strings attached, and the funds would be spread widely to smaller groups, capital projects, and heritage organizations. A look at the Seattle Arts and Cultural Affairs grants demonstrates how political these arts grants have become. 

One example is the C.A.R.E. (cultural access and racial equity) grants scheme, which has greatly reduced funding to some majors by 90 percent and lays out these guidelines: “The C.A.R.E. grant awards three consecutive years of funding to Seattle arts and culture, heritage, and arts service organizations with a minimum three-year history of providing accessible programming for Seattle residents and visitors. To create a more equitable, vibrant, and relevant arts sector, ARTS prioritizes support for organizations with an arts-focused mission that are taking action to be anti-racist and who value, implement, and uphold inclusive practices through an intersectional racial equity lens.”

And so, this long effort to get few-strings funding for the arts by courting government support, ends up with a strong political agenda. One lesson is to be wary of giving governmental forces a long time in the sausage factory to regroup and reshape. When it comes to government, there is no arts for arts’ sake.

David Brewster
David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

4 COMMENTS

  1. This just in from Inspire Washington:

    “On Tuesday night, we made history. HB 1575 (establishing councilmanic authority for the cultural access program) was approved by the WA Senate! The final vote count was 27 yeas and 22 nays. This was the last step in the long legislative process. Since there were no amendments, the bill goes right to the Governor’s desk for his signature. At that point, our bill is law!

    “What does this mean? Cities or counties may implement a cultural access program by public vote of the people OR a majority vote of their city or county council. Local elected leaders decide the option that is appropriate for their community. We believe that expanded authorizing options will spur the creation of cultural access programs in Washington, so that more communities are inspired by science, heritage, and the arts.”

  2. Help us with councilmanic. Tax authority given to the county council? Funds for the arts distributed by the council? A sales tax, regressive, not voted for by the public?

    • Councilmanic means the city and county councils can enact the tax by a vote of the council. Previously, the measures required a vote of the public. Originally, it was just a small increase of the sales tax, with an option for raising property taxes an equivalent amount; I don’t know if there are the two options, both of which are regressive.

  3. Care indeed. We need a way to fund arts without the government setting the agenda or incentivizing out comes. Sure “The Arts” will do what it takes to get into the trough. All this seemed like a good idea at the time but really did not give enough concern about governments participation in setting an agenda for the arts. The First Amendment is there for the arts. Artistic decisions always consider the $, in America that should come without strings and without the government picking the winners and losers.

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