Local Arts

‘Disappointed’ arts community regroups after sales tax loss thwarts expansion plans

Charlotte’s arts leaders shifted focus Wednesday as they dealt with the disappointment of voters rejecting a referendum for a quarter-cent sales tax increase that would have pumped $22.5 million into the local arts sector.

The sales tax also would have channeled additional funds to parks and education, for a total of $50 million a year.

Gone, for now, is the hope of bringing back public funding for arts field trips for all Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students, said Arts & Science Council President Jeep Bryant.

Also on hold are plans to expand arts and culture programming in under-served areas of Mecklenburg County.

The Arts & Science Council, which serves as the umbrella arts funding organization for Mecklenburg County, would have received the sales tax money and distributed it to arts and culture groups with oversight from county and city government.

But on Tuesday, more than 57% of voters rejected the tax increase, the second time in five years that Mecklenburg voters failed to pass a sales tax increase.

Susan Ford, a longtime resident of precinct 31, votes at Selwyn Elementary in Charlotte on Tuesday, November 5, 2019. Voters in Charlotte will decide Charlotte’s mayor, seats for city council, the school board and a quarter cent sales tax increase. Joshua Komer The Charlotte Observer

Bryant said it’s too early to go public with a Plan B. But “the plan now is to spend the coming weeks meeting with our partners, supporters, and all who joined us on the campaign to discuss new strategies to address the critical needs that we highlighted,” he said.

He highlighted four priorities the ASC had hoped to spend the new tax money on, but that will now need to come from other avenues: CMS field trips; expanding arts into under-served areas of the county; supporting small arts groups and independent artists; and boosting unrestricted operating budgets for arts and culture groups.

“We will be working to continue to make progress against those priorities, but admittedly without the ... extra speed and momentum that the sales tax would have provided,” Bryant said.

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Jeep Bryant is the CEO of the Arts & Science Council. Joseph Moran

He said he was surprised by the referendum’s defeat, because so many voters he talked to at precincts on Tuesday and during early voting were so supportive.

“So many of us came away from our experiences at the polls saying that ‘It feels like 60-40 or 70-30,’ “ he said.

Leaders of the county’s art sector had acknowledged that asking for funding at a time when the region is grappling with series social issues like a scarcity of affordable housing and a lack of upward mobility would be daunting.

But the pro-referendum campaign waged a battle armed with a $1 million budget and support from prominent community leaders.

“We are disappointed in the vote,” Bryant said. “But we are also encouraged that there are so many community leaders who want to ensure that our cultural organizations and artists are supported and that we serve the entire community.”

Michael Marsicano, president and CEO of Foundation for the Carolinas and one of the city’s biggest philanthropic masterminds, expressed regret at the vote.

“I’m disappointed the majority or our neighbors did not support this measure, as it was a good solution to meet important community needs,” Marsicano said in a statement to The Observer. “However, I’m pleased that we are having a community-wide dialogue on how to best fund arts, parks and education. And I’m hopeful we will unite to find a long-term solution.”

Declining funding

In the early 2000s, Charlotte was a national model for arts funding, thanks to robust giving campaigns benefiting the Arts & Science Council.

From 2005 to 2008, the ASC received $16 million or more annually. But in 2009, in the midst of the recession, total revenue fell to $12 million.

Since then, revenue continued to fall or remain stagnant, hovering around $10 million. As a result, ASC grants to local arts groups have dropped significantly, from $13.2 million in 2008 to $6.8 million last year.

Many business groups opted to channel their arts and culture giving directly to specific groups, often with money earmarked for specific uses that a company can put its name on.

That direct giving, while helpful, doesn’t always ensure that an organization’s basic needs like paying for building maintenance or staff support, is funded. And it leaves out smaller grassroots organizations and artists without the cache of a touring Broadway show or a major symphony or ballet.

Opera Carolina’s 2019-2020 season opens this week with “Macbeth.” Bob Lubell

“There’s a myth out there that private and corporate donations will simply fill the gap, and that’s just not so,” said Randy Cohen, vice president of research and policy at Americans for the Arts, a national arts research and advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

“The corporate and workplace giving to the arts has failed to keep pace with Charlotte’s growth,” he said.

“One of the messages (of the referendum outcome) is that the public sector needs to step up and do their share. We love the economic and business and community impact benefits that come with a vibrant arts community, but those benefits require investment,” Cohen said. “Government funding is a great equalizer.”

For corporations, giving to the arts often isn’t just about philanthropy, but about marketing and sponsorship, Cohen said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but one does need to consider who are the winners and who is left out of that.”

A defeat but a unification

On Tuesday, 78% of the county’s roughly 200 voting precincts rejected the referendum. The strongest opposition came from precincts in the Mint Hill area, where more than three-quarters of voters cast ballots against the measure.

Support for a sales tax increase came largely from uptown and its surrounding neighborhoods.

More than 60% of voters in Elizabeth, Chantilly and parts of uptown supported the referendum. The North Charlotte neighborhood, near North Tryon Street, The Plaza and East Sugar Creek Road, showed the greatest support for the measure. Nearly two-thirds of voters there favored the sales tax increase.

Bryant, the ASC president, says he started his workday Wednesday at an uptown Starbucks with a tearful barista.

She was an artist who’d met him earlier in the year at a community event. When she saw his name on the mobile order list, she walked out from behind the counter and thanked him for “working so hard” to shore up more money for the arts, he said.

“It reflects how it brought the cultural community together,” he said. “A silver lining would have been a victory, but this does help illuminate the path ahead.”

Observer database editor Gavin Off contributed

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Cristina Bolling writes about Charlotte culture for The Charlotte Observer and most enjoys introducing readers to interesting people doing interesting things. In addition to writing about the region’s style and fashion scene, she also covers topics ranging from the arts to immigration.