Recent weeks have seen arts funding back at the forefront of people’s minds for the first time since the failure of the so-called “arts tax” increase on the county ballot in 2019.
A newly-formed ad hoc arts committee led by Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt has suggested the city begin directly controlling how it funds the arts in Charlotte rather than funneling money through the Arts & Science Council (ASC), leading to concerns from some that the city may forego smaller organizations for large institutions that bring in more tax revenue.
Following the recommendations, ASC representatives and committee members have each pleaded their cases regarding how Charlotte should be funding and prioritizing the arts while acknowledging the inequity in Charlotte’s Euro-centric funding trends.
Putting an end to the city’s yearly $3.2 million allocation to ASC could be a death knell for the already struggling organization, which has seen a sharp decrease in workplace giving in recent years while missing out on a large funding opportunity with the failure of the arts tax two years ago.
Made up of Charlotte City Council members Malcolm Graham, Edmund Driggs, Braxton Winston and Tariq Bokhari, the city’s ad hoc arts committee wants to work toward establishing an Arts and Culture Commissioner who will then distribute funds based on the city’s yet-to-be-determined policies regarding arts funding, with the help of a panel of local experts who work in the creative field.
Historically, ASC has acted as an intermediary between the city and artists/arts organizations as the city’s “designated Office of Cultural Resources.” The ASC is funded by both the public and private sector, including the yearly $3.2 million allotment from the city with the understanding that the ASC will allocate these funds to provide an equitable arts experience through grants and fundraising efforts.
These grants have traditionally provided funding to Blumenthal Arts, The Mint Museum and other larger organizations, though in 2019, ASC leaders announced they would be shifting more resources to smaller grassroots organizations.
In February 2021, ASC published a Cultural Equity Report in which the organization acknowledged it had invested only 3.4% of total giving to minority artists since 1991. This, council member Winston said during a Feb. 24 ad hoc arts committee meeting, makes the city complicit in its allocation of funds, perpetuating inequality and inequity in the arts and leading to a general distrust of the organization while further making the arts inaccessible to minority communities.
In January, following the resignation of R. Jeep Bryant, who led ASC through “the most challenging time in its 63-year history,” the organization named Krista Terrell, a 19-year veteran with the organization and Black woman, as acting president. Some believe that, though temporary, this was a step in the right direction, allowing for more inclusive leadership to better represent the city as a whole.
While the decision makes way for equitable representation within the organization, the city — for a variety of reasons — continues to explore the idea of pulling funding altogether.
In the meantime, ASC has been looking for new funding avenues. In November 2019, a quarter-cent sales tax increase was proposed to provide consistent funding to the ASC, but was voted down in part, Gohjo Studios owner Andy Goh says, because of a lack of trust in ASC, leaving the organization in a precarious situation as it works to secure resources to support the community.
Goh was hired by the organization in 2019 to host a series of podcasts lobbying for a Yes vote on the sales tax increase.
Included in the recommendations from Charlotte’s ad hoc arts committee was the suggestion that the city increases its arts funding from $3.2 million to $4 million, with hopes that the private sector will match that yearly amount, making a total of $8 million in annual funding for local artists and arts organizations.
This private-sector funding, made up primarily of workplace donations, is a funding model that has become antiquated, Goh says, as organizations are seeing consistently decreasing workplace giving.
A former employee of both McColl Center and Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Goh has worked intimately with the arts community and saw the Bechtler receive consistent ASC funding in an amount that he said increased yearly while other artists and organizations scrambled to self-support.
The reason given by city officials for potentially reallocating its funding is not due to any mistrust of ASC, however, but because the city wants to focus on economic development.
So how are the issues with mistrust and the insatiable need for quantifiable return on investment connected? In an op-ed printed shortly after the recommendations were made, Charlotte Magazine editor Andy Smith wrote, “Economic development as the top priority leads to the same issues of exclusion that the ASC just apologized for.”
Goh said he has concerns about who will ultimately serve on whatever committee is put together to decide on how much money goes to whom. The current ad hoc committee has stated that the head of this Arts and Culture Commission will be appointed by the public and private sector funders, meaning the choice will likely be made to meet the agenda of the stakeholders, putting the arts community in a potentially precarious situation.
Artists applying for grants would have to prove how their art will financially strengthen the sector overall in this model proposed by the committee, which at its core is in opposition to the intrinsic value of the arts and a stated belief coming from the ASC’s Cultural Equity Statement that “everyone has cultural traditions that are inherently valuable.”
The conundrum lies in the determination of how the arts should be valued (financially or inherently), and this puts strain on the financial allocation decision-making process as these ideals are ultimately at odds with one another, though not mutually exclusive.
At what point can the arts exist simply for the intrinsic benefit of the arts themselves? Winston, though agreeing with the concept that this reallocation should be fueled with economic development in mind, said during the meeting, “Investment in arts is the actual economic development,” placing value on the artists themselves as opposed to how a city booming in the banking, health-care and hospitality industries can secure revenue from abstract concepts like mural creation and ArtPop billboards.
There’s a prevalent narrative among the council that in order for Charlotte to compete with other cities, we must value the arts. In this case, however, we are not valuing the arts for the sake of art itself but for what an investor might see as having a return versus a donation to intangible benefits like, say, creating a “vibrant culture of life for all” as is the mission of the ASC.
At present, no funding or committee decisions have been made. In an email to Goh, Eiselt wrote, “One of the City’s key Focus Areas is Economic Development. This is an opportunity to reframe the discussion of arts and culture not just as a philanthropy, but also as an economic driver that attracts visitors to the region and creates jobs through building our tourism industry. The Council’s proposed plan envisions the Arts and Science Council having a voice and a role in this process. Their technical expertise and experience is invaluable. However we believe there needs to be different voices and seats at the table to reimagine how we invest in our arts and culture assets and use our resources more equitably and inclusively.”
Goh said he’s concerned about who these currently undisclosed voices and seats may be. While there is value in holding an institution accountable and ensuring funds are spent wisely, the lack of disclosure of who these individuals may be have Goh’s “bullshit alarms firing,” he said, adding that he would feel more confident in the city’s process if we knew who those people were.
Tim Miner, co-founder of Charlotte is Creative, added that, “There is a wealth of diverse creative talent in our community and all need equity in access to funding and support.”
Last year, Charlotte Is Creative worked with ASC, Hue House and Foundation for the Carolinas to establish the Arts, Culture and Creativity Fund with $1.2 million of CARES Act dollars supplied by the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.
“Working together and rethinking what was possible, we were able to provide financial help to small cultural organizations and individual creatives that were not eligible for other COVID support grants,” Miner told Queen City Nerve. “We’re collaborating with others to make that model — public, private, corporate and nonprofits working together to support creatives equitably — the norm in the Charlotte region moving forward.”
When financial stability is threatened, the creative community is at risk. When the funding provided pours into primarily white organizations, the arts are not “for all” but only for a select few. Funding can provide artists with income and venues with resources. When venues have sufficient resources, there’s the ability to offer sliding scale ticket prices so all of our city’s residents can attend theatre productions and gallery openings, not just those willing and able to dole out thousands for season tickets.
Goh wonders whether this is by design to keep certain demographics out of the high-dollar art scene.
“When we limit funding, we limit people’s access. We limit their potential,” Goh says. “A child may have an ability lying dormant that could be ignited through exposure, leading to a life as an artist. But what happens when our community denies its members access? This prohibits equal access.”
Losing funding and the autonomy of allocation reaches deeply into the soul of the arts, cutting off what is and preventing what might have been. The past’s lack of disclosure provides a cautionary tale for what can happen when the arts are viewed as transactional.
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