Arts & CultureArts Features

Local Indie Artists Want a Say in New Tax Discussion

[Note: For full disclosure, MB Schaffner is one half of local independent arts group True Lobster along with Karina Caporino, with whom she collaborated for this story.]
Jean Tinguely’s “Cascade” dangles in the lobby of the Carillon building, which ASC calls home. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

On July 2, the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) voted to place a quarter-cent sales tax increase on the November 5 ballot, nearly half of the revenue from which will go to funding local arts. The BOCC has proposed to allocate 45% of the estimated $55-million revenue gained from the tax increase to arts and culture, with the rest going to parks and greenways (34%), education (16%) and smaller towns in Mecklenburg County (5%).

Because the Arts & Science Council (ASC) played a large role in bringing the potential tax increase to the ballot and has acted as the face of the tax in recent months, even launching a podcast to support the referendum, many believe the estimated $22 million of arts funding expected from the potential tax increase will go to that organization, but that decision has not yet been made.

The BOCC is expected to make final decisions regarding the specifics of fund dispersal at its meeting on Sept. 4. Until then, many in the arts community and beyond are reserving judgment on the referendum and whether to put their full support behind it.

The idea to activate this tax increase came from a committee convened by the ASC in December 2018 to identify possible dedicated revenue streams that might counteract a decline in fundraising from traditional sources such as workplace giving.

In its final report, the committee provided a three-step recommendation: First, the ASC would demonstrate a commitment to cultural equity in their grants and programs; second, it would solicit the BOCC to activate the sales tax to support arts and culture; and finally, the ASC would go through a restructuring to govern the allocation of this new income.

ASC leaders presented an overview of their plan on June 25 in a presentation called “Building the Cultural Capital of the South.” They shared basic information about their grants and programming with a focus on the ways they display diversity and equity. Additionally, the council provided several suggestions for possible governance models for this new revenue while highlighting the benefits of restructuring the ASC to become the primary governing body.

If granted stewardship of the funds, ASC leaders explained that they plan to reorganize their structure to reduce overhead and comply with regulations surrounding the management of public funding. Most significantly, the ASC would shift its energy away from fundraising to focus on stewardship. This proposed change means that the ASC would no longer solicit private donations, a choice that could leave many Charlotte artists without access to private funding.

While the distinction between private and public funding seems relatively minor at this point in the conversation, the two categories serve different and vital purposes in the development of a healthy arts economy. Public funding serves the constituents and community, placing the responsibility on artists and institutions to produce reliable, high-quality work. On the other side, private funding relies almost exclusively on the relationship between the artist and the funder. Through conversations and mutual trust, private funding creates a supportive environment for experimentation and innovation.

Without a combination of both funding sources, some worry that there is no structure in place for projects to develop from a small experimental phase into the guaranteed value needed to satisfy the interests of public funds. For example, if an installation artist can’t get initial funding from a wealthy donor to transform a single park bench into an immersive experience, the government will not have proof of the value and energy this project provides. Without this proof, this artist cannot expand their work to affect the culture of the city.

According to ASC, the council does support independent artists with local and state dollars through programs such as Culture Blocks, Regional Artist Project Grants and funding public art projects.*

On July 2, the BOCC convened with the goal of deciding whether the tax would go on the ballot. Representatives from institutions and neighborhoods as well as independent artists spoke to the commissioners about their experiences with arts in Charlotte. They highlighted the role of arts in building both personal and communal identity and underscored the importance of arts education in building equity throughout the city; however, no speakers addressed the question of governance or the historic lack of access to quality arts funding for artists and audiences not affiliated with large institutions.

After hearing the speakers, commissioners discussed their belief in the importance of arts. They also explicitly expressed concern over the ASC’s lack of organizational transparency, as well as an overall dissatisfaction with the centralization of wealth within primarily white, Uptown-based institutions.

The ASC is known for funding institutions like the Mint Museum, but has recently shifted some of its focus toward independent artists. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Given these general agreements, commissioners decided they could not arrive at a complete decision that day. Instead they split the discussion into two parts. First, they would decide whether to place the tax increase on the ballot, a vote which ultimately passed and set in motion conversations around a second, more complex issue: Who will govern the new revenue dedicated to arts and culture? While this decision was originally set for Aug. 6, the vote was postponed until Sept. 4 to ensure that all commissioners would be present.

This delay has intensified uncertainties among large institutions and independent artists alike. The ASC has warned of imminent consequences for the organization and the cultural sector without the increase in revenue, while commissioners have voiced misgivings about entrusting the ASC with such a significant fiscal responsibility, given its history of supporting large, primarily white, Uptown-based institutions.

In contrast to the ASC’s plan for governance, commissioners generally favor the development of a new 501c3 to manage the new revenue. While this new organization would be responsible for funding large institutions, small organizations and independent artists, there is currently no clear data to explain how that division might be achieved. It is also possible that this newly formed organization might serve as a granting body to the large institutions as well as the ASC, which would then shift focus to exclusively supporting small organizations and independent artists.

Anne Lambert, founder of local theater group Charlotte’s Off-Broadway, emphasized the complexity of the governance issue.

“I personally am conflicted about how the arts tax should be governed,” Lambert said. “I worry that if the ASC is asked to supervise and distribute the dedicated tax … it will be more of the same … On the other hand, I think the county commissioners underestimate the infrastructure and capacity that is required to adjudicate, administrate and distribute these types of funds.”

Anne Lambert directs actors during a 2018 rehearsal for ‘Confidence (and the Speech).’ (Photo by Ramsey Lyric)

Given the multitude of possible outcomes for the governance model, questions about the specifics of structure and funding models are met with reminders from representatives of the ASC and BOCC about the importance of “trust.” These bodies explain that the myriad of possibilities are so great that there is no way to reliably commit to specific numbers at this time; however, independent artists wonder if this tactic might stifle their collective voice as stakeholders in this vote.

Struck by the reality of how this tax could radically reframe arts and culture in Charlotte, independent artists have gathered to share information and experiences surrounding access to funding in Charlotte. Historically, Charlotte artists have been fractured across disciplines, personal identity and proximity to powerful institutions, which meant they could not leverage power categorically.

However, given the significance of this vote, a collection of artists is determined to try. While there is a general consensus that little can be done prior to the Sept. 4 decision, artists are watching closely and preparing to respond. After attending two informational meetings recently held by a collective of concerned independent Charlotte artists, singer/songwriter Jay Smith expressed support for the tax, explaining that a public vote of approval “will show how important the arts are viewed” and remind businesses and institutions that “independent artists … create the environment that people love about the city.”

Independent artist John Hairston Jr. at work. (Photo by Dion Galloway)

However, Smith also expressed concern that after the referendum, “officials will have used the creative community to get votes for the bill and will then use the funding for their own purposes.”

The ASC said it is dedicated to including independent artists in the conversation. At an outreach meeting at Resident Culture Brewing on Aug. 22, ASC staffers heard from artists who called for more funding for artists of color and a focus on capacity-building opportunities — educating artists on grant-writing and marketing their work.

Krista Terrell, vice president of marketing and communications at ASC, was at the meeting and told Queen City Nerve that ASC has made efforts to include more independent artists in recent years, using the recently launched Creative Renewal Fellowship as an example. She also pointed to the inclusion of independent artists such as CarlosAlexis Cruz and John W. Love Jr. on the ASC’s tax referendum campaign committee.

“[The Resident Culture meeting was] a facilitated conversation for them to provide their input on … how they would like to see those dollars be spent in support of creative individuals in the community, as it relates to grants, professional development and all of those things that tie to the community’s cultural vision plan,” Terrell said. “So we have heard loud and clear from creative individuals, and we’re taking that input to make sure that is shared with county folks as well.”

Without clarity about who will manage the new funding, artists continue to worry that they cannot effectively advocate for the benefits of this tax increase.

Local poet and storyteller Hannah Hasan explained that in response to such uncertainties, independent artists need a seat at the table.

“[Artists] must engage with institutions and organizations about how they will support our work both during and after the campaign,” Hasan said. “People do not count on artists to be organized. They don’t expect us to be political, but we are.”

*An original version of the story did not include this fact, but was later added.

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