The Right Note: Is the Artisphere a Better Value Than Libraries?

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column published on Thursdays. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

Mark KellyAt the State of the County breakfast hosted by the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, County Board Chairman Walter Tejada was asked pointedly about the heavy taxpayer subsidies going to the Artisphere.

The question noted that it cost roughly $40 in taxpayer subsidy for every visitor to the arts center. The question was asked in context of the arts center the board had promised would be ready to turn a profit by now.

As he was assuring those in attendance (again) that the Artisphere was on the cusp of profitability, Tejada wondered aloud what it cost taxpayers for every library card holder. The suggestion was that we are actually getting a good deal on the Artisphere compared to our libraries.

There are approximately 120,000 library cards for Arlington libraries, which have a budget of around $12.4 million. So, the correct answer to the question Tejada asked is around $100.

However, that is not really a fair comparison. The question related to each and every visit to the Artisphere requiring a $40 taxpayer subsidy. So, if we set aside the Tejada reference to library cards and look at library visits instead, the answer is completely different.

According to the County Board work sessions document for Fiscal Year 2013, the estimate was 2,041,288 patron visits to all the library branches this year at a taxpayer cost of $12,429,434. So, it costs taxpayers $6.09 per patron visit for the libraries. In other words, it costs nearly seven times more per patron to visit the Artisphere than it does for each visit to the library. This, of course, does not take into account all of the books that are checked out online and read on various e-readers and tablets. This would almost certainly drive the per “visit” cost down if accounted for in a similar way.

Tejada’s answer also compares the entire library system to one arts center and its cost. However, it is not our only line item of arts-related spending for the year. We could also add the per-patron cost of the $250,000 Signature Theater bailout. And, we could add the per visit cost for any programs sponsored by the nearly $2 million the County spends on Cultural Affairs. These numbers might bring the average cost down, or might drive it up.

Wherever the final per visit cost lands, the Artisphere’s “bang for the buck” is likely going to fall well short of the value our libraries provide. This is not to say the arts are not important to our community. However, the County Board Chairman offered little more than political spin in response to a valid question on a controversial project – a project on which the County Board continues to over-promise and under-deliver.

Mark Kelly is a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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