Insufficient Funds: Can public money grow Charlottesville’s arts scene?

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Insufficient Funds: Can public money grow Charlottesville’s arts scene?

It seems like an absurd plan to grow a city’s art scene: take the cultural community, run it through two years of focus groups and surveys, and publish six long-range goals (diversity and inclusion, arts education, cultural destination, creative workers, creative placemaking, and cultural infrastructure). It’s a wonky, almost anti-artistic approach. Doesn’t such an effort simply underscore Charlottesville’s willingness to obsessively reformulate intellectual problems rather than to roll up its sleeves to fix them?

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“The Charlottesville/Albemarle arts community rests on the backbone of two or three people, and it’s not really sustainable for that reason,” said Sarah Lawson, executive director of Piedmont Council for the Arts. Photo: Elli Williams.

Not according to Sarah Lawson, executive director of Piedmont Council for the Arts (PCA). The non-profit arts council used a variety of grants to pay an amount The Daily Progress estimated at $112,000 to an outside consulting firm to generate the Create Charlottesville/Albemarle: A cultural plan, unveiled during a brief ceremony at The Paramount Theater last month. What Lawson and her predecessor Maggie Guggenheimer saw was a lively arts community living hand to mouth on generous, likely unsustainable donations from a small group of patrons.

“The Charlottesville/Albemarle arts community rests on the backbone of two or three people, and it’s not really sustainable for that reason,” said Lawson. “Increasingly, many of the people who founded the arts community and make it so vibrant either passed away or moved away or, for whatever reason, got uninvolved. It’s a very real life cycle, and we wanted to make sure it didn’t result in killing off organizations that we all know and love.”

In 2011, PCA participated in a study conducted by Americans for the Arts called Arts & Economic Prosperity IV. It revealed that the arts and culture industry in Charlottesville and Albemarle generated $114.4 million in annual economic activity, resulting in $9.2 million in local and state government revenues, 1,921 equivalent full-time jobs, and $31.2 million in household income for local residents.

“The study completely shut up anyone who said the arts don’t matter economically,”  said Live Arts Executive Director Matt Joslyn. “We’re a huge industry with a massive economic impact, and Charlottesville and Albemarle would be fundamentally different places if you took us away. It showed that we’re worthy to be at the table.”

Create Charlottesville/Albemarle takes the Arts & Economic Prosperity study one step further by outlining the lifestyle impact and goals of our cultural scene, not just its influence on the local economy. The process, an investment in long-term alignment between the arts community and policymakers, included input from over 1,000 citizens and community leaders and spanned the better part of two years. The 32-page final document is a vision for the future for arts organizations and a well-formulated plea to local government to formally commit to providing funding and infrastructure to the arts community.

It’s as much an inventory as a plan, designed to empower struggling cultural institutions at a time when some high-profile smaller players are feeling the pressure. Vinegar Hill Theatre closed after 37 years of foreign and independent film screenings, citing competition from multiplex conglomerates and increased interest in streaming media. Random Row Books, the dynamic independent bookstore and performance space, had to close its doors to make way for a hotel. Chroma Projects Art Laboratory, a gallery and studio space on the Downtown Mall, closed just a few weeks ago when a confluence of rising rent costs and lessening tourism rendered the for-profit gallery unsustainable.

“I do think the city could have helped a little more,” said Deborah McLeod, the curator at Chroma. “Helping to promote fine art places or giving more opportunities for free parking to encourage tourism. I feel like they could have helped me more, because I feel like I was giving something important to Charlottesville.”

All three organizations were for-profit and therefore ineligible for non-profit funding, but they also, as Lawson put it, suffered from a lack of governmental response.

“We need to recognize certain resources as cornerstones of the community,” Lawson said. “And help either relocate them or integrate them into the planning process rather than paving over them.”

But not every leader in the local arts community thinks more infrastructure is the answer. Some are simply worried that as the city becomes more expensive, it’s pricing out its creative class and turning towards art tourism instead of creativity for answers.

“I think Charlottesville lost sight of how important it is to maintain a creative base and make damn sure that artists can be a part of the community,” said Greg Kelly, the former executive director of The Bridge Progressive Arts Institute. “LOOK3, the Virginia Film Festival—those large scale productions are great, but the underground DIY thing was slowly being tapped.”

Maintaining a thriving arts scene outside an urban center appears incredibly difficult. It’s a competitive, subjective, and bootstrapping world that thrives on energy and the willingness of artists to live on the margins of the economy. In a way, subsidizing the arts is counterintuitive, even problematic. If the scene can’t survive on its own, the reasoning goes, perhaps it shouldn’t exist at all.

On the other hand, art has never existed without patronage to support it. Those who remember the early days of the art scene in Charlottesville know it was based on cheap rent and benevolent landlords. The independent bookstores and contemporary galleries helped to yield the area’s current quality of life and revitalize its Downtown. Without a vibrant art community, its reputation as a cultural center and artistic haven will evaporate.

  • datcv

    How do you tell people who are struggling to get by that the city is spending money on art instead of actual public welfare projects (affordable housing, for example)?

    The city of Detroit owned millions of dollars in art, meanwhile police took hours to respond to crimes and the city couldn’t even afford to replace street lights. City officials had their priorities completely wrong. If you provide a low cost, low regulatory, low tax environment, businesses of all types, including art related ones will thrive.

    Ultimately, though, art is a luxury good, a luxury best left to voluntary funding. Public money should never go to more than essential city services. I certainly don’t want Szakos or Fenwick choosing a cultural plan for me.

    The complaints about there not being any art supply stores on the downtown mall are missing the point that a lot of retail businesses have gone away — Amazon and big box stores have out competed them — is that so tragic? Times change. Shopping habits change.

    I would take these complaints more seriously if there weren’t so many art galleries on the DTM. If Telegraph can survive selling indie art and comic books (and I hope they do), then I don’t see that anything needs to be done other than for us to go out and patronize these businesses!

    • RandomThoughts

      The city of Detroit like Charlottesville is another prime example of the Democrat liberal utopia of attempting to prop up a crowd that are not willing to pick themselves up , of course at the expense of the hardworking productive taxpayers .

      The days of cradle to grave coddling needs to come to an end as the taxpayers in the city of Charlottesville have paid to birth , house , feed , school and imprison enough criminals.

      Now where was I , OH , The arts , yea I agree ….no money needed on that garbage either … Where there is a free market the capitol always flows. When it comes to “art” , there is a reason they always call them starving artist .

      • Bruno Hob

        Yep sure glad the city of Athens didn’t use public monies to build that old ruin the Parthenon. What a waste! Don’t vote for socialist Pericles.

  • dafferty

    There’s enough bad public visual art in this town to sink the Titanic. Please, God, less not more.

  • Pete

    This is too big to fail. What’s being done?

  • Ida Simmons

    The city council can make more than a tax-funded contribution to the arts: do more to promote affordable housing by speeding the approval of more infill and smaller dwelling units and group homes.

  • Bruno Hob

    Our town only lacks three critical things in the Arts. Critical mass, critical consciousness and critical conversation.All the money in the world won’t buy them but yes, a little intelligent expenditure might help.

    • Edward N Virginia

      well said …

      for a town (and county) with seemingly boundless multiply-degreed people, as have many ‘college’ towns, it is remarkable how dull the area is here

      dull, because of what you say:

      thoroughly un-critical elites, that consider themselves to be too educated, too righteous, too deserving – and too elite – to be wrong about anything.

      The local political parties (Dem, Repub, and TEA) are thoroughly un-critical. University faculty are thoroughly un-critical. The affluent are thoroughly un-critical. These elites are self-congratulating, and self-serving. Constantly finding things to complain about, endlessly analyzing, and seldom actually getting involved. Or only getting involved on their own privileged terms (e.g. I”M the UVA faculty! I”M a big donor! I”M the local activist! I”M the young and beautiful one! I”M the creative one! … etc)

      it is a true shame, isn’t it

      and btw, public monies ought NOT be diverted from the hungry, the poorly housed, the sick, the rural, the poor, and other vulnerable parts of the community … rather, arts could be directed TOWARD THE THROUGH our vulnerable neighbors (example below)

      can this un-critical fog be burnt off?

      here’s the example:
      we saw a featured crowd-favorite film at the (Durham NC)Full Frame Doc Film Festival (much more inclusive festival than ours; they have shows IN PUBLIC SPACES, FOR FREE, for example; and INTEND to HIGHLIGHT the diversity than – as with our VA Film Festival – making it an afterthought). That film is Trash Dance. A local Austin TX dance teacher made friends with garbage workers (poor, mostly of color, men and women, with bad teeth, bad posture, … but with welcoming attitude toward someone who took genuine interest in their work). She got a grant to work with the garbage workers, to learn about them, work WITH THEM to choreograph a ‘ballet’ using their bodies, their garbage trucks, their tools, and put on a marvelous piece with them for the public! What a thing to do. Thoroughly CRITICAL – critiquing assumptions about class, social importance, beauty, dance, bodies, humanity and creativity … with the arts, with the people

      let’s do that here

      • Pete

        Well put.

  • fifthstop

    It seems like a no-brainer to me. We convene summits all the
    time to discuss smart collaborative strategies for transportation, education,
    water, attracting businesses, and (yes) public housing among
    many other topics. All of those fora and the alliances that instigate them are
    HEAVILY subsidized. It seems ludicrous to me that anyone would think it’s a BAD
    thing for the cultural community to come together and brainstorm ways to serve
    the community better. Seems like a smart strategy for jazzing the place up,
    and, as Sarah pointed out, it is a major economic driver as well, so it will help pay for those other things you want as well as making the place better for all.

    I know the idea of working together is distasteful for some, but that’s ok: you
    can stay home if you want to! The rest of us: let’s talk about ways to work
    together, between organizations, different types of creative workers, audiences
    and, yes, City+County. That’s what this is about.

  • downtownliving

    I think that Beatrix Ost and Ludwig Kuttner are true heros for downtown Charlottesville. They have been huge supporters or everything art, theater and restaurant since the beginning. The early 90s was a Renaissance for the downtown mall and it would not have been possible with out their support and creativity. Thank You

  • James Ford

    The headline is an in-jokey reference to the Great Dads song of the same name, right?

  • Greg Allen Morgoglione

    Are we going to see a breakdown/authentication of the $114 million that our self-serving Arts Scene has claimed it generates in our area?

    How much of that is salaries of the directors of the PCA and other arts non-profits? How much is Coran Capshaw’s?

    How much is Ashley McMillan’s for that ridiculous commercial she made for Newsplex? Akkkk….

    How much goes to the artists that everyone claims they are trying to enhance?

    Very childish article in many respects. Arts is in the same business that Exxon, Holiday Inn, Microsoft, CocaCola and etc are in. When you figure this truth out you’ll be so damn busy you won’t have time to whine, beg or ask for sympathy.

    I’m not amused.

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