letter from the director: investing in a civil society

October, 2010

Civil societies commit to achieving a dignified quality of life for all, whatever it takes.  In the US, the public sector is the way we put the systems in place that allow us all to thrive.   I am proud to be a public sector employee, even though 4Culture is not technically a government agency.

I don’t have to tell you that cities, counties and states are struggling to merely keep afloat as revenues dwindle and expenses rise.   It’s all over the news.  You and your families are already feeling the effects.

But I must speak up about an unacceptable trend I am witnessing: I’m seeing an increase in public sector leaders who seem comfortable framing arts and culture as “extra” or “fluff” – a luxury that we can trim during tough economic times.

No. No. No.

Public sector investment in arts and culture represents our collective commitment to strengthening the conditions that allow our unique local cultures to thrive.

Every day in the public sector, plans and policies are being implemented that will affect our future for decades to come.  We cannot afford to leave our humanity behind in this work.  This is systemic work.  We must have the systemic capacity to take the soul of our communities into account.

  • The Washington State Arts Commission has absorbed a 40% cut in the last two years.  It will be further reduced if an across-the-boards budget cut of 7% is applied to every state agency, as proposed by Governor Gregoire.
  • Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn’s 2011 budget proposal will result in reductions to the programs and activities of the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs.
  • The City of Bellevue may radically reduce or eliminate the grants program of the Bellevue Arts Commission.   In our bi-monthly meetings of the King County Local Arts Agency network, we are hearing similar stories from suburban cities throughout the county.
  • Regional public art programs are also  reporting extra scrutiny over their modest % for art allocations.

The community-based arts and culture projects supported through the public sector represent the best of who we are and where we are headed.  These are the projects that leverage powerful grassroots networks of communities helping each other achieve the dignities we all deserve.  These are the projects that take the time to understand our local history to inform where we are headed.  These are the projects that establish facilities and institutions where powerful local voices are nurtured.  These are the projects that build trust among neighbors, keep us connected and innovative as we move forward to find creative solutions.  These are the projects that with a relatively small investment return invaluable intrinsic rewards of resilience, health, pride and innovation.  These are the projects that can keep kids out of the justice system.  These are the projects we desperately need and are increasingly in demand during tough times.

Every expense of government is being scrutinized.  We’re all being forced to take a hard look at our priorities.

I am by no means suggesting that arts and culture should be exempt from the realities of government revenue challenges.  Arts and culture are resilient; artists and arts and heritage practitioners are creative problem solvers.   We all know we’ll have to share the squeeze and we’ll be motivated to collaborate even more than we already do.

But it is unacceptable to be singled out as less important that other public sector services and responsibilities.  It is a false choice to pit support for arts and culture against social services, for example. An impressive body of evidence demonstrates the correlation between health and social networks, between health and possessing a valued identity.

At 4Culture, we are committed to strengthening our coordination with regional public health and social justice initiatives. Arts and culture investment is a vital upstream solution to many of the social ills burdening our collective society.

4Culture’s budget is dependent on two designated revenue sources, the county’s capital budget for 1% for Art and Lodging taxes for our grant programs.  Lodging taxes are down 4% in 2010 after experiencing a 17% decline in 2009. Capital projects have been delayed or postponed, resulting in reduced revenue for county public art projects.   The only county general fund dollars that come to 4Culture are for stewardship of the 2,000 piece county art collection.   Will those dollars survive the budget process?

1973 was a watershed year for the arts in our region and there are lessons to be learned from it.  King County, the City of Seattle and Washington State all adopted public art ordinances that year.   The early seventies was another time of government budget challenges.   The famous billboard asking, “Will the last person leaving Seattle, please turn out the lights?” was put up in 1971. Despite the angst expressed in that billboard, visionary leaders at the time made a bold statement about the value of the arts by developing legislation that codified a commitment to the future, that said when we build public facilities, we will take the opportunity to express who we are and what we value by the inclusion of public art.

This is not the time to throw investment in our humanity under the bus.

Jim Kelly


P.S.   Congratulations to my friend and colleague Michael Killoren, who has accepted a position with the NEA in Washington, D.C.   Michael will be the new director of the NEA’s Local Arts Agencies and Challenge America Fast Track.   I have known Michael since he arrived in Seattle from St. Louis lo these many years ago.  We worked together at the King County Arts Commission, before he moved on to become the first Director of Cultural Tourism at the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau.  And I’ve tipped a glass or two with him as we’ve shared our respective experiences navigating the politics of the public sector.   I’ll miss him, but I am pleased that he will be in a position to steer lots of federal dollars our way.