In response to calls from constituents to oppose an ordinance that would allow the King County Council to take control of 4Culture, Council Member Larry Gossett has been sending around a four-page essay slamming the organization for inequitable spending. It's a doozie, but it can be summed up pretty quickly.
His thesis: Gossett believes "Black, Asian, Latino, Native American and many low income folks in rural, unincorporated King County have simply not been served well by 4Culture," and so he wants to "start a new process by having the King County Council, who oversaw cultural affairs in this region for 37 years (1965 to 2002), get another chance to exercise more accountability and control over 4culture." At recent hearings, Council Members Rod Dembowski and Dave Upthegrove have made similar arguments.
Gossett's primary supporting argument: One recent collaboration between the council and 4Culture, dubbed Building for Culture, perpetuated institutional racism because it focused on funding arts infrastructure projects. Arts orgs serving people of color don't often own the buildings out of which they operate, and so many of those orgs were excluded from this money.
His big idea: In his letter, Gossett criticizes the way 4Culture spent $28 million it got from the state back in 2015. (That money came from a confusing negotiation with the state involving the Kingdome, 4Culture, and the Lodging Tax that will be used to fund 4Culture in 2021, part of which I explain over here. The Seattle Times has more.) Gossett wonders why 4Culture’s executive director Jim Kelly and the 4Culture board didn’t take $8 million of that money “and divide the County into 4 quadrants and make a commitment to build or rehab 4 minority oriented cultural centers.” In answer to his own question, he says: “I think this path was not taken because it is always easier to give the money to those who have already been successful, rather than work with those historically excluded.”
The hypocrisy: Back in 2015, 4Culture wasn’t the only one handing out arts money. County council members actually had $8 million of that $28 million that they could spend without restriction on arts. (4Culture got to allocate $20 million dollars, but they could only fund capital projects due to federal law involving the way bond money can be spent.) If the council wanted to split the county into quadrants and use that $8 million to rehab or build minority-oriented cultural centers, they could have. But they didn’t.
In fact, the council spent most of that $8 million on large arts organizations around the county. The money was appropriated in 2015.
Among other orgs in District 4 (which was Larry Phillips's district at the time the money was appropriated), the council allocated $2 million to the Seattle Opera. This was in addition to the $1 million 4Culture awarded the opera through their competitive process.
The Federal Way Performing Arts Center, which is in Council Member Pete von Reichbauer's district, was awarded $1.5 million from the council. The center received $500,000 from 4Culture.
The Tateuchi Center in Bellevue—which was, at the time, Jane Hague's district—got $1.2 million. It was not recommended for funding by the 4Culture panel.
The council directed $575,000 to the Highline Historical Society, which is in Upthegrove's district, in addition to the $425,000 that 4Culture awarded to the project. (Fun fact: Upthegrove's mom, Cyndi Upthegrove, serves as a the managing trustee of the Highline Heritage Museum, which is owned by Highline Historical Society. Council Member Joe McDermott, who opposes the bill, sits on the society's advisory board.)
The council distributed money to three arts organizations that focus on people of color: $10,000 for the Wing Luke Museum, $45,000 to Friends of Mukai, and $72,000 for El Centro de la Raza. All told, 1.6 percent of the money went to organizations designed to serve people of color.
The council unanimously approved the appropriation of these funds. If any council member wanted to vote against appropriating the funds or against or against Building for Culture in general, they could have.
Gossett claims the council will do a better job than 4Culture of making sure these funds are distributed more equitably. These numbers do not support that claim. These numbers show that Gossett and the rest of the council members will likely do what every what every politician in this history of politicking has ever done: try to bring as much money into their district as possible. Which is fine! That's kinda their whole thing! But that doesn't mean 4Culture grants are going to be spent any more equitably under council control than they are now.
Meanwhile, fears that the council will unnecessarily politicize 4Culture's budget and board have driven artists and organizations to show up at hearings and fervently make arguments against the bill. The way the council distributed their $8 million seems to confirm those fears.
I've written to Gossett and asked for comment. He hasn't responded. Through a county spokesperson, I've asked for comment from any council member who had a moment to talk about what process they used when deciding which orgs would get the money. I haven't heard back. I've also left a message with former council member and council chair Larry Phillips, but I haven't heard back from him, either. I'll update this post when anyone gets around to calling me.
None of this is to say that funds are equitably distributed throughout the county. They aren't. 4Culture knows that. But in an open letter to Gossett posted on 4Culture's webpage, Kelly says "4Culture has worked with a singular focus and diligence to improve its outreach to lower income communities and communities of color by launching a series of initiatives and grant programs to address these inequities."
Some of those programs include Creative Justice, which is an "arts-based alternative to incarceration for young people;" and Community4Culture and Open4Culture, which are grant programs with more flexible application processes and ongoing deadlines specifically designed for community-based orgs and artists who have never applied before. They also offer rural internships, put poetry on buses, and hold open office hours once a month throughout King County to answer questions about how to apply for their grants.
Kelly also says he recognizes the organization "cannot fix these systemic problems overnight" and that they "cannot fix them alone," but they "acknowledge the inequities that exist within the arts and culture field, and we are working tirelessly to be a real and meaningful part of the solution."
The council votes on the bill on Monday, March 19. (That's next Monday!) Six council members like the bill, so it'll probably pass. But, if you want to ask them about the process they used to distribute their $8 million, or if you want to ask what their office does to alert their constituents to grant opportunities through 4Culture, find your district and e-mail your representative:
firstname.lastname@example.org (206) 477-1003
email@example.com (206) 477-1009
Pete von Reichbauer
firstname.lastname@example.org (206) 477-1007
email@example.com (206) 477-1001
firstname.lastname@example.org (206) 477-1005
email@example.com (206) 477-1002