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Debate Over Arts Funding Continues As Budget Vote Nears

Follow the money

arts funding
Aisha Dew speaks against the city’s new plan for arts funding at a May 8 press conference. (Photo by Jeff Cravotta)

There’s no shortage of things to get engaged with when it comes to current Charlotte-area politics. There’s the overwhelming mission to put together a 20-year future comprehensive plan for the city, there’s fighting between the county commissioners and local school board that’s getting uglier all the time, there’s the reimagining of our police force, gun violence in communities, and any number of other issues on the table.

But during a May 10 public hearing on the proposed city budget for Fiscal Year 2022, one in which residents could speak on the aforementioned issues or myriad others, nearly every one of the 20 speakers who addressed city council did so to address one issue: arts funding.

That’s both a promising sign for the arts sector and a troubling one, as most of the speakers were there to speak against the city’s newly proposed plan to dismantle and revamp the way it’s funded the arts for decades. Despite their efforts, it now appears the new plan will move forward upon approval of the new budget by council on June 14. 

On April 13, Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones laid out the framework for a new approach to arts funding for the city, moving away from the model that funneled all such spending through the Arts & Science Council (ASC).

In a release that day, Jones announced that his staff’s plans will go beyond recommendations from the city’s Arts and Culture Ad Hoc Committee (ACAHC), which originally called for increasing arts funding from an annual $3.2 million to $4 million. Jones’ plan calls for an increase to $6 million annually, which would ideally be matched by $6 million in private fundraising, totaling $36 million in arts funding over three years.

In FY 2022, the $12 million in arts funding will include $6.1 million to be split between the 38 “Thrive organizations” that the ASC had already been funding, $1.3 million to ASC — $800,000 in operational costs and $500,000 for Cultural Vision and individual artist grants — and $4.6 million in leftover funds, the allocation of which will be determined at a later date.

The leftover funds will be placed with Foundation for the Carolinas to be allocated by an Arts & Culture Commissioner who would report to the city manager and receives guidance from a board of advisors appointed by public and private sector stakeholders. The plan would begin with the implementation of the new fiscal year, which will go into effect on July 1.

Despite the proposed increases in financial support for the arts, hundreds of local creatives have come together in a coalition called ART Future to stand against the proposed plan and push the city to increase funding for ASC, bring more independent artists and grassroots arts organizations to the table to play a role in allocating funding, and ensure that funding will be allocated in an equitable manner that doesn’t prioritize large institutions or tourism impacts, among other demands.

Dupp&Swatt co-founder and ART Future supporter davita galloway spoke at the May 10 meeting about her desire to see a wider range of creatives participating in formulating the city plan.

“Have you ever been in a meeting and all of the attendees are discussing what’s best for a targeted audience and/or specific group to which they don’t belong, nor do they have proximity?” galloway asked council members. “Yeah, that’s what this feels like.”

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davita galloway (far left) with HUE HOUSE co-founders David Butler and David “Dae-Lee” Arrington.” (Photo by Will Jenkins)

Her concerns echoed those of many of the speakers that night, as well as those of ASC leadership. Speaking after the meeting, ASC president Krista Terrell told Queen City Nerve she felt the entire process had been expedited without explanation.

Terrell said ASC had been in conversations with the city about finding ways to increase funding for the sector, conversations like those surrounding a proposed sales tax increase that lost a referendum vote at the county level in 2019, but insisted that the new plan was sprung on the organization without warning.

Krista Terrell (Photo courtesy of ASC)

“We have the experience and expertise to do this work,” Terrell said. “It’s been really interesting how this has accelerated very quickly, and really not a clear understanding of why. For me, there has never been communication by the city or city council members to ASC saying we have an issue with the way you’re doing your business or how you do X,Y, Z.”

The city takes a new path

It was in February that the city began publicly discussing the potential for creating its own commission to handle arts funding, at the recommendation of the newly formed ad hoc arts committee.

“This is really a long-overdue assessment by the city of how we achieve our goals, as opposed to just awarding the same amount of money each year to a partner organization,” said city council and committee member Ed Driggs at a Feb. 24 ACAHC meeting.

Driggs had the lone perspective of being both an ASC board member and member of the city’s arts committee. He later said he stopped attending ASC board meetings when it became clear the committee was planning to “go in a different direction” from the organization, as to avoid any conflict of interest. 

It was at the Feb. 24 meeting that the committee unanimously approved recommending a new plan to create an arts advisory board and hire an arts and culture commissioner.

The decision came as ASC has struggled through a decline in workplace giving during recent years. It also came on the heels of an inaugural Cultural Equity Report from ASC, released in February 2020. The report admitted to missteps in equitable funding by the organization in the past while laying out the framework for how it planned to prioritize equity in the future.

Part of the plan included the launch of an equity supplement to further support organizations whose primary intentions, practices and mission are by, for and about African, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Native American artists, cultures and communities (ALAANA).

In the first round of FY 2021 investments from ASC, announced in July 2020, the equity supplement resulted in a 60% increase in funding for organizations with an annual budget of $300,000 or less, a 30% increase in funding for organizations with an annual budget of $300,000 to $1 million; a 33% decrease in funding for organizations with an annual budget of $1 million or more; and a 33% increase in funding for ALAANA organizations over what would have been awarded prior to the equity supplement.

Comparing ASC funding for the Mint Museum and the Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture between Fiscal Years 2020 and 2021, before and after the equity supplement was applied, gives a glimpse at how drastic these changes could be.

In 2020, the Mint Museum received $926,352 in operating support and the Gantt received $179,880. In Fiscal Year 2021, when ASC implemented its equity supplement formula, the Mint went down to $509,494, and the Gantt went up to $201,813.51.

According to the newly proposed budget, the 38 “Thrive organizations” that ASC had been funding would all receive an amount equal to the highest total they had received over the last two years. Therefore, if the currently proposed budget is passed, Mint Museum will receive $926,352 again, as they did in FY 2020. 

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A look at who gets what in terms of arts funding according to the proposed FY 2022 budget.

At a May 19 budget adjustments meeting, Jones said Gantt Center would be the only exception to this plan, as he recommended adding $150,000 to the the total of $201,813.51 the museum was set to receive. Jones called the discrepancy in funding for Gantt Center his mistake due to a decrease in total ASC funding last year that led to a larger total allocation for the museum but a lesser percentage of the total. 

In a tweet after that meeting, however, Mayor Pro Tem and ACAHC member Julie Eiselt stated the discrepancy “Actually wasn’t an algorithm issue – the [Gantt Center] has been underfunded when compared to its peers for years so the City is trying to catch them up.” 

Two sides, similar goals

For Braxton Winston, an ACAHC member who has worked in the local arts sector for 17 years — most recently as community connections manager at Levine Museum of the New South — the May 10 council meeting was a great sign, even if most of the speakers were against the plan he worked on.

“I think it’s a beautiful thing, it’s democracy,” he told Queen City Nerve after the meeting. “I’m encouraged that people are participating and organizing, that’s a good thing. I’ve been hearing from the Charlotte arts community for the past 17 years, I’ve worked in it in many different paths, so some of the concerns that I heard from the group I completely understand because I’m there … I think the work that is going to come out of this, the table will be set to really deal with the concerns that we’re hearing out of our community at large.”

Where the chasm between Winston and some community members comes into play is in the discussion around just why the city wants control over arts funding.

The Mint Museum recently hosted the LOCAL/STREET pop-up exhibit. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

The city owns a number of museums and arts venues around town, including two Mint Museums, the Bechtler Museum of Fine Art, The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center and Discovery Place.

Terrell and others claim the city wants to control funding in light of ASC’s new prioritization of indie artists and grassroots organizations so as to ensure the large institutions under the city’s ownership are placed first in receiving funding.

“This is about tourism and this is about Uptown,” Terrell said. “We understand that people have to come Uptown for the mountaintop experiences like Hamilton or The Color Purple, Broadway [productions] and things like that. But people also have articulated clearly for many years that they want experiences close to where they live, and that is the work that we are focusing on.”

Winston refutes this claim, saying he is unsure where the idea came from, and that the ACAHC expressly stated its goals to spread funding around to underserved areas, specifically in the city’s Corridors of Opportunity.

“That focus on the Uptown area is completely something that is coming out of the ASC; it’s not something that is the focus of city council. It’s really kind of opposite of the actual guidance that council gave the manager and outside of the actual facts of the proposal that the manager has given back,” Winston said.

He emphasized that the unanimous agreement between he and the other members of the bipartisan committee — which also included Republicans Tariq Bokhari and Ed Driggs, as well as Democrats Julie Eiselt and Malcolm Graham — highlights how the needs are spread around all districts.

“We’re hearing the same things from the folks over in Wesley Heights that we’re hearing out of Ballantyne: ‘Why do we always have to come Uptown?’” Winston said. “And a big part of the reason is the way that arts money has been spent over the past generations that the current model that we’re in has created. So we’re looking at possibly getting consensus around council around this new direction that provides real opportunities for a diversity of spends in all 300 square miles of Charlotte.”

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ASC had begun prioritizing ALAANA organizations over the last seven years. (Photo courtesy of JazzArts)

Terrell, who was named president of ASC on April 27 but has been with the organization for more than 20 years, said some council members have used ASC’s Cultural Equity Report against them, publicly implying that the organization is doing too little, too late to fix a problem that they created.

Terrell said ASC began its work around prioritizing equitable funding seven years ago, only making it public with the release of its Cultural Equity Statement in 2019 and the report in February 2020.

“I’m really excited about increased funding for the sector, because we have been advocating for that for years and years, so I’m excited about increased funding, my concerns are about the equitable distribution of those dollars, because equity is about everyone having the resources that they need to move along together. Not one jumping back up to $900,000.

“I want everyone to get their money,” she continued. “The [arts] sector, we were the first to close, we’ll probably be the last to open because of the nature of our businesses, being together and gathering and sharing experiences together, so the sector from creative individuals to organizations of all sizes have been deeply impacted financially because of the pandemic. So we need that funding for recovery, but again, we need it in an equitable way, so that some are not benefitting more than others.”

Ready to vote

Mayor Vi Lyles ended the May 10 meeting by ensuring that all council members would be spending time meeting with smaller arts organizations to consider their concerns, including the demands of ART Future, in the lead-up to their final budget vote scheduled for June 14.

During the May 19 budget adjustments meeting, during which council members were tasked with making any final suggestions for changes to the budget, Matt Newton spoke out against closing the window for changes while there were still stakeholder meetings to be held.

ACAHC member Bokhari, however, insisted that the planning process behind the new plan had already been carried out and encouraged his colleagues to pass the budget as it’s been proposed.  

“The [city] manager has put forward the budget to us, he has gone through many, many stakeholder meetings on this,” Bokhari said. “This is the plan where we double down, triple down, get more money into the arts community, and still help the ASC. I think all we need to do is do a quick vote on that. There’s nothing else for us to figure out at this point.”

For Winston, even if the budget passes as is, it’s only the beginning of a process that will evolve over time, and one that he hopes residents will remain engaged in well after July 1. 

“I’m just excited that people are participating in the democratic process, this is what it looks like,” Winston said. “It’s the job of the citizens to continue to agitate and to continue to push their elected leaders to govern in the form or fashion that they see fit … That people’s passion, that people’s organizing is front and center, this is something that we should completely celebrate. Most important is, find those places of common ground, because they certainly exist, and that’s the exciting part.”

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