Arts advocates seek money from Indy government

December 22, 2008
The Arts Council of Indianapolis is leading talks with city councilors, Deputy Mayor Nick Weber and the chiefs of top cultural organizations about how to create a bigger pot of revenue for the arts.

Participants have met at least twice since September, when the City-County Council approved a budget that cut annual funding for the Arts Council from more than $1.5 million to $1 million.

"We're still in the early stages," said Councilor Ginny Cain, whose district spans the northwest side. "What we're trying to do is ... move the arts funding from the property tax and make it a designated fund somehow, so each year they won't be worrying about whether they're going to have it."

Cain, a community theater performer and arts enthusiast, suggested the meetings to Arts Council President Greg Charleston.

Opposition to taxpayer support for the arts comes from Cain's own Republican Party, which won control of the City-County Council in November 2007.

The recent funding cut stemmed from a citywide budget crunch, but Cain acknowledged that some of her Republican colleagues are fundamentally opposed to the idea of arts groups' drawing from general revenue, which is mainly property taxes. In meetings at the Arts Council's downtown offices, the ad-hoc group of as many as 20 people has studied the use of specially designated sales taxes, portions of the hotel-motel tax, foundations, and required contributions from developers.

"There's a lot of options; there aren't a lot of realistic options," said Shawn Mulholland, chairman of the Arts Council board.

The group will meet again in January, and could make a proposal public as early as February, Mulholland said.

Any pitch for new or additional revenue will be built upon the argument that arts aid economic development. Executives from the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, The Children's Museum of Indianapolis and Indianapolis Museum of Art were all invited to the table because their institutions draw people from out of town.

Mulholland noted that more than 1 million people from outside Marion County visit the IMA each year.

"That number is larger than the number attracted to all of the Colts' games in a year," he said. "If we can come up with [$720] million to build a venue to host the Colts, and it's not driving as much traffic as the IMA is, why do we treat the cultural venues separately?"

The Arts Council is a not-for-profit that collects money from public sources and makes grants to organizations, both large and small. In 2007, the council disbursed $2.2 million to 73 groups. Generally, the grants are for community outreach, education and marketing.

Cain said the public support gives local arts groups credibility as they seek money from other sources.

"They want to see, is your own mayor backing you?" she said.

Weber, deputy mayor for economic development, said Mayor Greg Ballard is "terribly supportive" of the arts.

"It helps create more full and rich community life as we market our community to companies — employers as well as workers."

Weber said the Ballard administration doesn't have any preferences or ideas about alternative methods of funding.

"This is really an opportunity for us to listen and learn," he said.

Mulholland said the arts council will not be content with simply replacing the $1.5 million from the city's general fund, at least not in the long term. He said he'd like to see the city's support rise to $3 million a year.

Why that number? "The psychology of it — doubling the commitment for the arts," he said. "It's also in the neighborhood of where our competing communities are in their support."

Some options the task force is exploring would require lobbying at the state level. For example, adopting a 0.1-percent sales tax for the arts — an approach Denver-area voters reauthorized in 2004, would require action by the Indiana General Assembly. Simply raising the hotel tax would also require state approval. Cain said Arts Council board member Tobin McClamroch, a lawyer and professional lobbyist, could be helpful on that front.

Another entity that might figure into the mix is the Capital Improvement Board, which draws $60 million a year in public support, including portions of the hotel, restaurant and cigarette taxes.

CIB, which runs downtown sports and convention venues, already is a major source of funding for the Arts Council, providing $1 million in 2009. But it's also already wrestling with its own challenges, including substantial operating deficits at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Even so, Cain holds out hope.

"That might be a sensible place to fund this through, totally," Cain said of CIB. "It's kind of a Twilight Zone agency — it's quasi-governmental. We could still have a say, as a council, but it would be less controversial."
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