(Updated: 3/26/19) As ARLnow reported earlier this month, County Manager Mark Schwartz has proposed significant cuts to Arlington’s subsidies for various arts programs:
“Schwartz plans to close the Costume Lab and Scenic Studio Program located at the Gunston Community Center (2700 S. Lang Street), which provide[s] scenery construction space and costume rentals for local arts groups. That will involve laying off two employees who staff the programs, a savings of about $180,000 each year.
The manager also expects to cut funding for its arts grants program by a third, dropping it from about $216,000 to $146,000 annually. The program provides some matching funds to support local artists, and both  County Board contenders [John Vihstadt & Matt de Ferranti] … pressed for increases to the fund.”
It’s commendable that Schwartz has attempted to work through the County budget, looking for excessive or unnecessary spending. Arlington’s poor track record regarding arts subsidies, including the Artisphere, the Signature Theatre bailout, and the Sewage Treatment Plant fence fiasco all show that arts subsidies remain a part of the budget that cries out for serious reforms.
But Janet Kopenhaver, Chair of the advocacy group Embracing Arlington Arts, also has a point when she highlights the magnitude of the cuts (about $500,000 out of $5.2 million) that the arts subsidy budget is being asked to absorb for FY 2020: “we remain stunned at the very high proportion the small arts budget is being asked to shoulder.”
Arlington needs a 21st century arts subsidy policy
The controversy over the Manager’s proposed cuts to Arlington’s arts subsidies exposes a larger problem: Arlington lacks a coherent 21st century arts subsidy policy–a set of easily understandable principles against which proposed cuts and proposed new spending alike can be measured.
Instead, Arlington has a confusing patchwork quilt 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 or refused to promote the arts in Arlington.
Can you explain to the ordinary Arlington resident how these things fit together into a coherent statement regarding the principles County government will follow in subsidizing the arts?
- a 28-year old arts policy statement
- the role of the Arlington Commission for the Arts. See its proposed Arts and Culture Strategy here.
- the role of a section of the County government known as Arlington Arts. See its Arts Space Market Study recommendations here.
- potential new taxpayer subsidies for the existing Arts District in the Four Mile Run Valley.
A 21st century arts subsidy policy should reflect current fiscal realities
Arlington is facing a completely different fiscal environment in 2019 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 require that core services should receive priority
I strongly favor an appropriate level of continued County government public subsidies for the arts. 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 like these, the County Board should prioritize public spending for schools, parks, roads, sewers, and public safety. Is that what Mark Schwartz is doing with his proposed arts subsidy cuts? We can’t tell because we don’t have an easily understandable statement of arts subsidy principles against which to evaluate Schwartz’s proposed cuts.
After first utilizing the highest level of its public engagement guide, the Arlington County Board should adopt a 21st century arts subsidy policy.
Boston only adopted its impressive arts plan after a year-long public engagement period. Arlington should follow this public engagement example to determine the right balance for Arlington between private and public support for the arts.
Perhaps the County could create such a page by expanding the listing to include all other County subsidized arts activities that are NOT currently listed. To begin this critical, transparent community conversation, the County Board promptly should direct the County Manager to publish on one dedicated website a comprehensive, easily understandable listing of all current county-subsidized arts activities and the dollars they receive.
Arlington should not try to replicate arts options that are easily accessible elsewhere in the region. But maybe Goody’s could get its mural back.