Cultural task force looks to city, county to help underwrite arts

Local governments should restore or increase contributions to the arts, says a yearlong study that examines how to pay for the Charlotte region’s cultural life.

A significant increase in private donations is also vital, says the report being released this week. It calls for raising at least $40 million over 10 years to invest in fundraising and marketing and another $125 million for an endowment campaign. Government investment should total about $35 million over 10 years, the task force recommended.

Their recommendations, included in a 174-page draft report provided to the Observer, call for new ways to help ensure financial stability for the cultural sector, which includes everything from the Charlotte Symphony to the museums at the uptown Levine Center for the Arts to the Carolina Raptor Center in Huntersville. It also calls for major changes in the role of the Arts & Science Council.

Organized by the ASC, the Cultural Life Task Force met for a year and examined how other cities, from Miami to Minneapolis, pay for museums, performances and other cultural initiatives.

Battered by the recession and a drop in workplace donations, the region’s cultural vitality was being sapped by a lack of money, arts leaders have said. One barometer is a long-range look at Arts & Science Council campaigns: In 2013, the ASC raised $9 million, a 25 percent decline over the last decade.

Last week, the ASC reported that this year’s campaign lags by 13 percent and extended the drive.

More than 20 arts, history and science organizations get unrestricted grants each year from ASC, which also provides money to individual artists, manages government’s public art program and runs a variety of other programs.

Cuts were costly

A few cultural groups closed because of the recession, while others struggled through.

Some organizations cut administrative functions, which ensured their short-term survival, but cost them their future, the task force found.

“Cultural nonprofits are now attempting to do more with less in a way that is unsustainable and threatens their existence,” the report said.

In many cases, the report says, organizations spent their money on programming while cutting staff and fund-raising resources.

“That’s a great plan if it’s a temporary plan,” said Valecia McDowell, one of the task force co-chairs. “Eventually, you get to a place where that begins to cripple the organization, and it begins to crumble under the weight of its own infrastructure.”

Workplace giving falls

Workplace giving – once the backbone of the ASC’s annual drives – has steadily declined and was acutely felt in 2008 when the recession gripped Charlotte with large-scale layoffs in the financial and other sectors. That year, ASC fundraising fell by 38 percent to $7.1 million.

This was followed by government cuts. City-county combined funding for cultural items, for example, was $6.2 million in 2012, a 25 percent decrease from a decade earlier.

More corporations are moving toward campaigns that allow employees to earmark contributions for specific groups instead of campaigns like those for United Way and ASC, the task force said.

“In Charlotte, these expanded campaigns have resulted in significant losses to the ASC campaigns in key corporations,” the report said.

Since 2007, unrestricted gifts to the ASC have fallen 51 percent to $5.6 million in 2013, the task force found. That’s money the ASC can allocate to nonprofits based on need.

Further, the number of gifts to the ASC – and the number of donors – has fallen by 65 percent since 2007.

More from county?

Elected officials have been briefed on the recommendations and apparently are acting.

On Tuesday, for example, Mecklenburg commissioners are expected to approve a referendum for the November ballot to raise the county’s 7.25 percent sales tax by a quarter of a percentage point.

Under the proposal, 85 percent of the increase would go to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Central Piedmont Community College for teacher raises, 5 percent would go to libraries and 10 percent to cultural groups through the ASC.

That could raise about $3 million annually for the ASC, estimated Dumont Clarke, vice chairman of the commissioners.

Increasing connections

The report recommends the ASC focus less on its annual workplace drives and more on connecting organizations to people.

“We have not done a good job connecting our newcomers to their passions,” said Pat Riley, co-chair of the task force. “It would be beneficial for the ASC to poll people during workplace drives, for example, about the kinds of cultural events that appeal to them, then notify the appropriate group to reach out.”

“If you like photography and your daughter likes pottery, you’d get information about things you are interested in,” McDowell said. “Clayworks and the Light Factory could reach out to you and say, ‘Come and enjoy what we’re doing.’ ”

Scott Provancher, former ASC president, said that while workplace giving “got people involved through a united strategy, now we have to get people involved through their passion. We need to make them feel like an owner rather than a renter.”

Various approaches

The task force also examined how other urban areas support the arts. Denver uses a regional tax; Miami’s support is largely through the city; and older cities like Minneapolis and Cincinnati have a powerful philanthropic base among private donors.

“In many cities, the cultural life of the city is largely run by the cities,” McDowell said. “They don’t have something like an ASC. In many ways, Charlotte was a bit of an outlier.”

Provancher said briefings about the recommendations with key groups, including governmental bodies, had been well received. “In general, city and county elected officials and staff have been problem-solvers and receptive to looking to playing a role in the cultural sector. There’s a healthy level of partnership.”

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