Press Club

Peter’s Take: What’s Arlington’s Arts Subsidy Policy?

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

There is a continuing controversy over whether to create an “Arts District” in the Four Mile Run Valley area.

Latest arts subsidy controversy

The Chairs of the Sports Commission and the Parks and Recreation Commission recently wrote a withering joint letter to the chair of the Four Mile Run Valley Working Group sharply criticizing a proposal to create an Arts District in that area:

“It remains unclear how the proposed arts hub would be financed or managed over time to become self-sustaining,” said the letter writers. “We do not want to repeat a costly mistake [like the Artisphere].”

The latest controversy over this Arts District is symptomatic of a much larger problem: Arlington lacks a 21st century arts subsidy policy.

Instead, Arlington has a confusing patchwork of programs, initiatives, studies, task forces and partial policies that make it impossible for the ordinary Arlington resident to understand when, how and under what circumstances taxpayer money will be used to promote Arlington arts.

Can you explain to the ordinary Arlington resident how these things fit together?

  • A 27-year old general policy statement regarding taxpayer support for the arts
  • The role of the Arlington Arts Commission
  • The role of a non-profit organization, Arlington Arts
  • The goal of the Cultural Affairs division of the Arlington County government, part of Arlington Economic Development, in using taxpayer dollars to sponsor a weekly column on
  • The County Manager’s new policy of “making low-cost, high-impact investments in performing arts and maximizing the use of existing venues, including schools”
  • The recently-adopted “Enriching Lives: Arlington Arts and Culture Strategy”
  • The “Artspace Phase II Market Study”

A 21st century arts subsidy policy should reflect current fiscal realities

It is long past time for a 21st century arts subsidy policy because Arlington is facing a completely different fiscal environment today than it did in 1990, such as the capacity crisis in our public schools and our lack of adequate unprogrammed open green space for our surging population.

Current fiscal realities dictate that core services should receive priority

I strongly favor an appropriate level of continued public subsidies for the arts reflective of the nature and purpose of specific arts programs. But, the arts are not a core government service in the same way as schools, parks, roads, sewers and public safety. Because the arts are not core government services, the County Board should fund a higher percentage share of the needs for schools, parks, roads, sewers and public safety than the share the Board funds for the needs of the arts community.

As I wrote in December, Arlington should measure all of these needs (core and non-core) through the lens of longer-term financial modeling, setting priorities using data-driven information regarding what the County and APS are likely to be able to afford in the context of tax rate stability.


Utilizing the highest level of its new public engagement resources, Arlington should adopt a 21st century arts subsidy policy.

The City of Boston only launched its recent arts plan after a year-long public engagement effort.

To facilitate a community conversation to develop Arlington’s arts subsidy policy, the County should promptly publish a detailed listing of all current County-supported arts activities and the corresponding direct and indirect County subsidies.

Arlington should not try to replicate arts options that are easily accessible in the region.

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