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Only a beginning on sustaining arts

The emphasis Tuesday night was on pay raises for teachers, and appropriately so. But something else hangs in the balance with the quarter-cent sales tax Mecklenburg County commissioners just placed on the November ballot: The future of this region’s cultural sector.

More than $2 million a year – 7.5 percent of the sales tax revenue – would go to the Arts & Science Council, which would distribute it to Mecklenburg cultural groups like the symphony, the ballet and the opera.

It’s a boost Charlotte’s arts sector desperately needs, but it’s only one piece of a complicated puzzle. The region’s cultural organizations have struggled financially since the 2008 recession and have yet to fully recover. The ASC’s annual campaign, the most important source of cultural grants, dropped 38 percent in one year and has been flat since. Nearly three out of five of ASC’s cultural partners posted deficits in 2013, up from 44 percent in 2007.

Charlotte’s leaders have tardily realized that the city’s arts scene is under extreme pressure and the model that built it is outdated. The Arts & Science Council, and the whole system’s old approach, needs a reinvention.

Recognizing that, a task force chaired by lawyer Valecia McDowell and Allen Tate President Pat Riley spent the past year studying ways to create a sustainable funding model. Their report, released last weekend, includes some important recommendations but falls short of spelling out a reinvention.

In many ways, in fact, it envisions a future that resembles the past, on steroids. The ASC would remain the chief middleman, collecting donations and tax revenue and passing them on to the individual organizations. The report recommends that the ASC spearhead a $125 million endowment campaign, not that individual cultural groups pursue their own campaigns. It recommends a $40 million campaign to boost groups’ fundraising and marketing.

Much of the report seems to tell the ASC and the cultural groups to do a better job of what they should have been doing all along. It urges ASC to be the leading advocate for the arts, and tells arts organizations to work hard to strengthen their balance sheets. Most are already doing that, and could use considerable help.

The report does include some promising initiatives. It suggests that ASC create a database of donors and patrons and share it strategically throughout the cultural community. It sees the ASC as using its campaign to more proactively connect donors and potential audience members to individual agencies. It suggests that ASC work more closely with tourism industry leaders to connect visitors to cultural outlets. The boost to individual groups’ sales and marketing is important.

Mostly, though, it again sounds an alarm that most of us heard a while back. We wish the task force had provided a more forceful response. A vibrant cultural sector is crucial to an economically healthy city. Charlotte’s leaders, and all of us, must work hard – and creatively – to create and sustain just that.

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