The case has already been made that culture needs candidates, in this election cycle and beyond. That case has been made by many—including myself—not on art-is-good-for-you truisms but on cold, hard, conservative principles.
Remember the figures from this column three weeks ago: In 2005, Seattle's Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs (OACA) got a $2.57 million budget (minus funds for public art). That year, OACA and Seattle's arts institutions returned $12.3 million in city-government revenue. That's not counting money that went to the state, the county, and local restaurants and hotels. (Nearly 1.9 million people traveled to Seattle in 2005 to see art—and spend money—here.) The conclusion: Arts funding is not a handout; arts funding is an investment. And if artists and arts advocates want to get anywhere, they'd best stop behaving like beaten dogs and start behaving like a force to be reckoned with.
First, the culture constituency must rally its resources and figure out what it wants. I've been asking artists and administrators that question and have heard a broad spectrum of answers: relief from crushing business taxes, stronger advocates, a job-share project to spread around medical benefits—and even "nothing." Housing and health care were major themes, as well as financial incentives to help developers preserve arts venues instead of gentrifying them into extinction.
Over lunch at Cafe Presse last week, Susan Trapnell laid out a constellation of changes Seattle could make to stimulate its arts ecology. (Trapnell is a senior consultant at the Arts Consulting Group, has managed the Guthrie, and is largely credited with saving ACT Theatre in 2003.) A big one for large institutions: unrestricted funds. Most local grants are handed out for specific projects. By the time they arrive, the ground may have shifted, revealing new needs and opportunities—but the money is chained to its preordained purpose, keeping institutions sluggish and bureaucratic instead of nimble and responsive.
A big one for fledgling artists: lottery grants. "Nobody knows who the right new artist is until after the fact," Trapnell said. Let's own the risk, and stop wasting time and money on applications that don't predict what artists will do anyway. Trapnell told a story about a nephew who left investment banking to work with the rural poor in West Virginia. One night, he had dinner with some old investor friends and brought a jar of pennies. "Here's the difference between your business and mine," he said and dumped the pennies on the table. "You take those pennies and turn them into dollars. I take those pennies and write reports on where they all went."
These are small, initial ideas. I'll report more in the coming weeks. But smarter investment—detaching strings from grants, taking risks on young innovators—would be an excellent start.