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

Planning creativity

“Artists tend to gravitate here, but we struggle to meet their needs,” said Maggie Guggenheimer.

Several years ago, Guggenheimer saw a growing trend in which arts leaders asked for greater advocacy at the local government level, but there was no real information to share with policymakers to justify their demands. As the then-leader of a nonprofit that represents the entire arts community, she decided it was PCA’s job to create an objective platform for the discussion, because even the city’s most mature arts organizations had been strained by the economic downturn.

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“If all this plan does is give PCA $60,000 for another employee, I would vehemently oppose it. I hope to hell we don’t have a mollifying investment,” Live Arts Executive Director Matt Joslyn said. Photo: Martyn Kyle.

“Theater is incredibly expensive,” said Matt Joslyn. “Every time we do a show, we lose money. Even if it was a sold-out run, if you separate out the costs of the building, the cost of insurance, of staff, all the things that we have to have for that performance, we’re losing money.”

“We’ve never been driven by sales,” said Second Street Gallery Director Steve Taylor. “Not to say we don’t try to get sales, but it’s not mission-central. We’ve always been community fund driven.”

Taylor said the support of public funding is a major reason the 41-year-old contemporary art space still exists. By 2011, the arts scene in the city and county had outgrown its resources. Saturated with talent, stunted by lack of funds, cultural leaders looked for a strategic solution. At the nexus of these interests, Guggenheimer saw “that a broad community-wide effort was going to need to take place in order for us to actually make something happen.”

Create Charlottesville/Albemarle was the opportunity to put these needs in writing. As the volume’s glossy introduction states: “Filling the gap between earned revenue and increasing costs for cultural programs is a continuing challenge for non-profit organizations. While individual donors tend to be generous, sophisticated, and engaged, fundraising events and other appeals proliferate. Corporate and public resources are strained. Funders look for collaboration and evidence of impact.”

“We aren’t just holding out our hands and saying ‘we’re good, help us,’” said Jody Kielbasa, UVA’s vice provost for the arts and director of the Virginia Film Festival, which in 2013 boasted record-breaking box office sales of $120,000 and generated an estimated additional $1,403,157 in audience expenditures. “It’s very important than any new support this [plan] receives has a strategic return on investment, but I firmly believe that any investment will be fully realized, educationally, culturally, and through building a stronger community.”

With a community appeal to government, consensus is an important part of the process. Create Charlottesville/Albemarle had buy-in from 54 local nonprofits and businesses and ultimately, the theme that united them was the need for some ongoing public funding of the scene. Artistic expansion would provide more entertainment, education, and community, not to mention new residents and tourists, who spend an average of $68 more per event than their local counterparts. Despite its wonkiness, the plan offers a way “to make sure that the needs that everyone has are at least attempted to be met,” Lawson said.

“Naysayers might say, ‘Well, if the rich people have been paying the bills so far, let them keep paying,’” Joslyn said. “That argument doesn’t hold any water. Look at the cities we admire: Austin, Asheville, Portland. I promise you we are not going to become those cities on the backs of rich people in Charlottesville. If they wanted to live in those cities, they would move there.”

“To be clear,” Joslyn explained, “I’m not saying, ‘Live Arts’ annual budget is $900,000, and I think the city should pay $200,000 of it.’ I think it would be entirely reasonable for us to look at receiving 3 to 5 percent of our budget coming from taxpayer supported funding in recognition and in support of this asset that this city can’t be without. For the city to say, ‘We’re willing to put $20,000-30,000 a year of taxpayer supported funding behind it.’”

“Like the wine business and the wedding business and the craft brewery business, the cultural business has grown dramatically,” Taylor said. “For me this [plan] is a way to keep moving the game on.”

Messy democracy

If Create Charlottesville/Albemarle is our best hope for a thriving arts scene, you might expect it to provide some kind of, well, plan. But its six goals are general, an apparent reiteration of ideals any city might want. Specific recommendations are meted out in the text, but they read more like a choose-your-own adventure than a numbered list. How will this document help Charlottesville become the next Austin or Asheville or itself, only better?

“Ultimately, a plan is no authority of mandating anything. It’s just a bully pulpit,” said Craig Dreeszen, the consultant who led PCA’s plan, and literally wrote the book on community cultural planning (Community Cultural Planning: A Guidebook for Community Leaders, Americans for the Arts, 1998).

Dreeszen recently finished a five year check-in with Providence, Rhode Island, which developed a plan similar to Charlottesville’s.

“A lot of cultural leaders were carrying on with their work and forgot that there was a cultural plan,” Dreeszen said. “But when you look at what they’ve done, you see they’ve accomplished many of things in the plan,” he added. “There’s a lot more collaboration, a lot more interest in tapping into the economic potential of the arts.”

Diversity, both in programming and participation in the arts, is a primary focus of Charlottesville’s blueprint. Ty Cooper, a local promoter and board member of The Paramount Theater, has been pushing the cause of cultural diversity for years. He sees the plan as a chance to codify the value of cross-cultural arts offerings.

“Let’s say the city is trying to get more young professional blacks to relocate here because they want to strengthen the middle class,” said Cooper, who sat on Create Charlottesville/Albemarle’s Audience Development and Community Engagement task force. “Long story short, they’re going to Google ‘Charlottesville’ to see what they’d find if they came here. If they don’t see what they need to see, they’re not coming. They need to be fed culturally.”

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“Craig urged us to realize that the degree to which the community cares about the plan is more important than the goals,” said former PCA Executive Director Maggie Guggenheimer. “We’ve built this incredible network of people who have familiarized themselves with the process enough to have a stake in it.” Photo: John Robinson.

For Guggenheimer, the work of creating the plan was as important as its outcomes, because it meant that all the players in the scene had to sit down with each other and listen.

“Craig urged us to realize that the degree to which the community cares about the plan is more important than the goals,” Guggenheimer said. “We’ve built this incredible network of people who have familiarized themselves with the process enough to have a stake in it.”

It’s Dreeszen’s job to make these things happen, but not every plan is the same, and he has good things to say about Charlottesville’s process of engaging.

“I was really struck by how engaged community leaders were in Charlottesville’s process,” Dreeszen said. “In other cities, one person took the pulse and wrote the prescription, and those plans looked more coherent and focused because they’re all coming from one author. But Charlottesville’s plan is messy democracy.”

The solutions are complex, incremental, and long-term, distilling respondent recommendations into more than 120 specific ideas for initiatives. Many reflect issues in the community itself, like calls for better transportation to and from underserved communities and more affordable housing.

Suggestions for revenue streams from stakeholders include per household taxes (a measure recently passed in Portland), bed taxes, or a budget item in the city’s Capital Improvement Program, which funded the Percent for Art program from 1993 to 2005.

“One idea that exists in the plan is an arts district where the city or county could offer a tax benefit or subsidy for people who want to open an arts-related business,” Sarah Lawson explained. “That benefits the local economy and activates zones that aren’t being used to their fullest extent, and suddenly, places like Chroma and Random Row have a place to go.”

Capitalizing on tourism initiatives to promote the arts is another. “I had tourists buying art to get me through,” explained McLeod before she shut Chroma’s doors. “There are more tourists now, but they’re coming for the wine and cider and beer.”

One guaranteed outcome is PCA’s place at the table in city and county discussions. “Because the city and the county lack cultural affairs departments or community arts positions, there’s no one in the public infrastructure who is working on these issues,” Lawson said. Her group will fill the void, championing arts and cultural nonprofits.

Charlottesville City Council endorsed the plan in November 2013, and the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors did the same in January. So far, no specific strategies have been approved. “When you look at the numbers, it’s a relatively small amount of money that would make a huge impact,” Lawson said. “There are people in the city and county who are interested in it. I think they have a much clearer idea of all the priorities on the table, though, and are trying to avoid committing to anything because it is a huge political issue. Like oh, you want to create a new tax? To support what?”

The absence of hard numbers or committed buy-in has some cultural leaders concerned.

“If all this plan does is give PCA $60,000 for another employee, I would vehemently oppose it,” Joslyn said. “I hope to hell we don’t have a mollifying investment.”

Jody Kielbasa echoed him. “For this plan to live beyond the paper or the computer screen, it needs that support,” he said. “My hope is that everybody continues to advocate for a strategic, multi-year funding commitment.”

Matthew Slaats, the executive director of the Bridge PAI, wants to see who buys into the plan, but in the meantime, he’s aligning programming to goals and capitalizing on the plan’s cross-institutional collaboration.

“We just wrote a grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts with PCA and the city,” he said. “It was a pre-planned collaboration that wouldn’t have happened before.”

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“A good time to look back and ask, ‘How did it go?’ would be in 10 years,” said Steve Taylor, director of Second Street Gallery. “People don’t have the patience, but I think it’s going to be interesting to see what happens in the next 10 years and what influence this plan can have on that.” Photo: John Robinson.

Steve Taylor isn’t in a rush to see results. “A good time to look back and ask, ‘How did it go?’ would be in 10 years,” he said. “People don’t have the patience, but I think it’s going to be interesting to see what happens in the next 10 years and what influence this plan can have on that.”

PCA plans to reconvene its steering committee on the six- and 12-month anniversaries of the plan. These meetings will share progress updates and refocus scattered energy. As far as municipal discussions go, the fiscal year budget will be announced in March or April and talks can begin after that. At the earliest, change will come in 2016—but only with the help of more messy democracy.

“Give yourself the exercise of imagining Charlottesville without these places: Live Arts, the Paramount, the Pavilion, Second Street, McGuffey, the Jefferson, the Southern, Regal Cinemas on the Mall,” Joslyn suggested. “And when you do that, by the way, you have to take away 80 percent of the restaurants. And then when you do that, you can take away 80 percent of the shops. So now that’s your Downtown. How does that feel? Still want to live here? If you don’t like that, we’ve got to raise our voices and say ‘This matters.’”

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