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Peter’s Take: Lessons Learned from Artisphere

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

Peter Rousselot

What are the major lessons we should take away from:

Arlington County needs a new arts policy

Arlington’s current arts policy was adopted on December 8, 1990.  In a column I wrote two years ago about Signature’s $250,000 first bailout, I called on Arlington to update its arts policy. Last December, at the time of Signature’s $5 million second bailout, the Manager promised that Arlington would update its arts policy. It hasn’t happened. Why must we lurch from bailout crisis to bailout crisis without a new policy?

The new arts policy should reflect current fiscal realities

Arlington’s current arts policy was adopted a quarter century ago. It may have served us well for a long time. Parts of the policy may be just as valid today as when those parts were adopted. But, it is now long past time for a new policy because Arlington is facing new issues such as the capacity crisis in our public schools.

Current fiscal realities dictate that core services should receive priority

I strongly favor continued public support for the arts with our tax dollars. But, the arts are not a core government service in the same way as schools, roads, sewers, and public safety. Because the arts are not core government services like those, the County Board should fund a higher percentage share of the “wish lists” for schools, roads, sewers, and public safety than the share the Board funds for the arts.

Funding the arts based upon “economic development” should be reconsidered

It’s a very slippery slope to justify the costs of funding an arts project based on the project’s alleged contribution to economic development. The county has entered into some of its most ill-advised deals, like those with the Artisphere and Signature, by trying to justify those deals as important to the economic development of Rosslyn and Shirlington, respectively.

It would be better and more forthright to provide public taxpayer funding based strictly on artistic merit, relying on the recommendations of a qualified citizens’ advisory group. Even when artistic merit is the sole criterion, Arlington should only enter into agreements that cap Arlington’s financial exposure.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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