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Should Voters Raise Taxes To Support The Arts? ASC Says Yes

Jeff Cravotta
Choreographer Peter Chu instructs a group of dancers with Charlotte Ballet and the Charlotte Academy in an April 2018 rehearsal.

Mecklenburg County voters will have the final say in November on raising the county sales tax, potentially gifting an annual $22.5 million in revenue to the Arts and Science Council. As voters consider if they're a yae or nay, we ask ASC Board Chair Valecia McDowell to detail how the organization might use the money, and how voters can be assured it will be spent wisely.

Nick de la Canal: So the Arts and Science Council gives funding to nearly every major arts organization in the city, that includes Charlotte Ballet, Blumenthal Performing Arts, the Bechtler Museum of Art, and you also help fund many smaller groups as well. Why do these groups need your help? Are ticket sales not covering their expenses?

Valecia McDowell: They absolutely don't cover the expenses. That's one of the things I think is a common misconception. Our arts sector, and this is the case all across the country, it's always been supported by additional funds whether they be public funds or private spending.

De la Canal: Now last year your group paid out about $8 million in grants. And with this you'd be getting around $22 million. That's a lot more money. Are you guys prepared to handle that large increase? And how would you allocate that to different groups? And would any of that additional money be used for expenses and salaries?

McDowell: Certainly. So that's a very complicated question. So are we prepared? Yes. And we're working closely with the county to make sure that that money is distributed across the sector appropriately.

This would be an opportunity for us to do two things. The first thing would be to stabilize those organizations that you just identified, both large organizations and small organizations, with some much needed operating support funds. The second thing that this money would enable us to do, which would be new and really transformational for our community, is to really focus on issues around cultural equity.

The community has been very clear with us about what they're interested in seeing from the sector. They want to see us building bridges and addressing differences using the cultural sector. They would like for us to be helping our students pre-K to twelve. And they want to see innovating, interesting programming that's relevant for all of the different aspects of our community, which is of course diversifying rapidly.

De la Canal: Would you guys use some of this money for salaries?

McDowell: So we're working through that because I think the county is looking at a whole range of governance options where we are right now. You know, in terms of our own structure we use about 7% of our funds for what is pure overhead. Right? And we're looking at ways to further reduce that number.

De la Canal: Since you brought up possible oversight and governance, are there any specific accountability or transparency measures you're open to? How can voters trust that you'll spend this money wisely?

McDowell: Sure, so I'll give you some examples. We've been in discussions about changing the appointments to our board so that there were many more public appointees to our board. We've had discussions about conducting our meetings consistent with open meeting laws. We've been in discussions about putting caps on overhead expenses.

Again, these are just, this is just a sample of the types of things that we're certainly open to doing. We've been in discussion with the county about the possibility of the county instituting, you know, essentially an oversight board and dictating priorities. So, there are a lot of different ideas that are sort of currently on the table but we think that's a good thing.

De la Canal: Finally, the county is allowed by the state to do this once and that is if we increase the sales tax in November we can't do it again and some commissioners have wondered if this is the best use of this tax increase. You know, why not use this money for affordable housing or programs for the homeless? So why the arts?

McDowell: Certainly, so well why the arts? And parks and teachers? But I understand, I understand the question and respect it. You know, I ask the question myself. You know, let's just start with our kids. Because for me part of the reason, main part of the reason, why I do this work is I recognize from my own experience growing up here in Charlotte that everybody is not a sports kid. And so, one of the things that we can do, one of the ways that we can engage our children get them thinking creatively, help them to imagine a future for themselves that is different than the future that they currently have is engaging them through music, through arts, through science and history.

We want these funds to be utilized to over serve communities that are currently, traditionally underserved. It's a way to establish place making, neighborhoods, community bonds. It's also a way for our government to demonstrate their investment in communities that traditionally maybe have not felt that investment as greatly as have some other communities.

De la Canal: Valicia McDowell is the board chair for the Arts and Science Council. Thanks so much.

McDowell: Thanks Nick

Nick de la Canal is a reporter for WFAE covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal