A shudder ran through the arts community this month. It was a shudder not quite of shock or anger, but worse—of realizing that you are powerless against forces that are indifferent.
On Friday, April 1—after seven straight years of bills proposing simply to continue directing a measly sliver of tourism-generated tax money to King County arts funding—two last-ditch-effort bills died without dignity.
The house bill died on a technicality so boring that it adds insult to injury. A committee vote passed the bill to its next step, but the number of hand signatures required is higher than the number of votes needed, and two members had just walked out of the session earlier in the day, meaning their hands were not present to sign a piece of paper. "SENATORS TOM AND HATFIELD! COME OUT AND SIGN THE 4CULTURE BILL!" I cried out on Facebook. It was more like yelping. Phone calls poured into their offices. No response. I called Ed Murray, the senator from Seattle who is, as one person aptly put it, "mildly sainted around here."
"Oh, it was never going to pass anyway," Murray said.
The other bill was sponsored by the senate—by Murray's side. Nobody even mentioned this one among the people advocating for the arts—a group called Advocate4Culture, whose online notices have motivated hundreds of people to write and call their representatives and show up at hearings over the increasingly dire last few months.
Nobody mentioned the Murray bill because it is widely known that house Speaker Frank Chopp will not pass any arts bill unless it includes funding for housing—and Murray's didn't. There's a story circulating among gossip-hounds that Chopp once had a consciousness-altering experience at a fancy ballet-or-something performance where he noticed some people in the audience wearing furs, and he decided the arts needed to be taught a lesson. I wanted to ask him about all this. Frank Chopp didn't call me back.
Indifferent Force No. 1: If arts funding dies, it'll be at least in part because Frank Chopp and Ed Murray can't work together.
Indifferent Force No. 2: If arts funding dies, it'll be at least in part because news outlets don't give a shit about it. If they did—well, they'd employ writers to cover the arts full-time (in the Northwest, The Stranger is essentially alone in this). Those journalists might not be as easily manipulated by fear-mongering Republicans who crow about taxes for projects they just don't like while letting other taxes lie.
Veteran News Tribune columnist Peter Callaghan took the bait hook, line, and sinker. He cast the house bill as the pet project of a bunch of fat cats, supported by "pretty powerful interests in Seattle—a lot of wealthy people are arts patrons."
Wealthy people go to New York to buy art and bring it back to their Medina homes. It's either uninformed or disingenuous to confuse 4Culture—King County's public art agency—with, say, an art museum. 4Culture's projects are not the stuff the rich like. They're on the ground. The White River Valley Museum. Connecting artists with river scientists to do projects on the populations of fish. Artists taking people's waste and making animations out of it by standing at the entrance to the dump on Saturday mornings. Lighting up a giant barn so it glows on Vashon. Helping pay for a Salish language symposium. Connecting artists with landlords in Pioneer Square and the International District, where the storefronts are empty, in order to put temporary installations as well as temporary creative businesses (a woodworker is one that comes to mind) in the middle of the city during the recession.
4Culture does not pay for the whole of any of these projects, just bits, as leverage. And the money is not always even the most important part: 4Culture is easily—easily—the smartest, most effective, most service-oriented, outreaching arts agency in Washington State. The legislature is hacking away at the Washington State Arts Commission this year, and you didn't see me yelping about that, did you?
To put 4Culture's $3 million from the house bill into perspective, note that the state gives $5 million in a single tax loophole each year to private jet owners. There are many, many other loopholes like that. (Also note: Tourist-generated taxes are required by law to be used for tourism purposes and cannot just be redirected to basic services.) For more perspective: This so-called house "arts" bill, while providing $3 million per year for the arts, provides $150 million to expand the convention center. It's a convention center bill.
That brings me to Indifferent Force No. 3, the real heartbreaker: If 4Culture dies, it will have died for no reason at all. It will be collateral damage.
The convention center bill has now been smuggled back into the budget, only adding fuel to the fire that the arts are somehow cheaters—while their most deserving member lies helpless on the legislative floor bleeding to death. Unless somebody does something about it, after 2012, 4Culture is no longer funded.
Want more of the painful details? Jen Graves is taking your questions about the house bill, the senate bill, and the death of 4Culture in the arts section over on Questionland.