Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.
By James Swindell
One dreary September afternoon, I took the elevator to the top of the recently opened Observation Deck at CEB Tower in Rosslyn. I was surprised to find a well curated experience that highlighted several fascinating stories of our region and showcased a brilliant view of Washington, D.C. As an arts management professional and arts advocate, the views of the Kennedy Center and other national monuments reminded me of the reason why I relocated to this area in the first place: the arts are alive in and around the nation’s capital.
In Arlington, I’ve seen the arts foster creativity in children by developing their own staged musical from start to finish, promote values of inclusion with an actor who was deaf portraying the lead character in the musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and celebrate cultural diversity with a number of outdoor street festivals.
Coming down from the clouds, however, brings a troubling view of a situation on the ground in a county that is fighting desperately to determine how it will support the arts.
Arlington County states in its cultural strategy, Enriching Lives, that it “thrives as a community because arts and culture create a sense of place, catalyze economic vitality, and enrich the lives of those who live in, visit or work here.” But a county budget shortfall projected by County Manager Mark Schwartz to be as high as $30 million puts this goal in jeopardy.
As a commissioner on the Arlington Commission for the Arts, my colleagues and I fear cuts to the county’s budget that affect the arts and culture. Budget cuts would target modest appropriations like the $216,000 in small Arts Grants that our Commission administers, funding special projects and providing space and services. While cuts may help shrink a deficit, they would penalize organizations that achieve great success on budgets that are already lean even after receiving grants as low as $5,000. A shortfall would also stymie funding for additional Challenge Grants, a consistently efficient type of funding that requires an organization to match the county’s commitment by raising new, private dollars. Funding for these have provided a 4:1 return on investment since 2009.
My experience advocating for the arts has shown me, unfortunately, that the subject does not necessarily command attention among all of Arlington’s residents. In a 2018 Arlington County Resident Survey, 51 percent of respondents expressed they would choose to reduce the modest funding for Arlington Cultural Affairs ($3 million), the county’s largest cultural program, if needed to avoid increases in property taxes.
This runs contrary to the proven impact of the arts — the arts are good for the soul and good for business. Studies commissioned by Americans for the Arts, the nation’s leading nonprofit organization for advancing the arts and arts education, concluded that the arts contributed $189 million to Arlington’s economy in 2015, supporting local jobs, local businesses and local artists. That same study also concluded that non-resident attendees spent an average of $27 (on top of admission) when attending a performance or event in Arlington.
Turning our backs to these results will only stunt additional gains in an industry yearning to take shape in places like the newly established Arts District along Four Mile Run. Reducing arts funding would in turn reduce necessary support of our arts organizations, reduce the staff to administer quality arts programs at the county level and reduce opportunities to participate in programs by local arts organizations.
We must have the political will not to leave the arts behind if we are going to keep community-based arts programs available for Arlingtonians, and to compete with other jurisdictions. Companies like Nestle and Amazon are drawn to a community like Arlington with a distinct quality of life, of which the arts are a central part.
A budget shortfall does not have to inevitably affect our arts organizations, or how we address a shortage of cultural facilities or maximize the visibility of artists in our community. It does require that our community take a strong stand to the Arlington County Board to emerge with a more favorable position on the arts in Arlington County’s budget.
James Swindell is a native Virginian living in Crystal City. He works in the non-profit arts in Washington, DC and serves on the Arlington Commission for the Arts. In the photo above, Swindell is visiting a striking public art installation called Dressed Up and Pinned, located at 2401 Wilson Boulevard.