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Controversy Over Arts Tax: ASC Makes 'Us Sound Like Entitled Trust Fund Kids.'

Jeff Cravotta For WFAE
FILE PHOTO: "So You Think You Can Dance" Choreographer Peter Chu leads Reach students, members of Charlotte Ballet II and apprentice dancers from the Charlotte Academy in rehearsal.

As the campaign began in February for a new quarter-cent sales tax for the arts, there was tension as to whether the city’s arts community was in as dire of a situation as some said.

The president of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center wrote in an email that to “describe this as the imminent collapse of the cultural sector is total BS.”

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Tom Gabbard, president of Blumenthal Performing Arts, said in an email he's concerned about the messaging behind a proposed quarter-cent sales tax increase for the arts.

Tom Gabbard of the Blumenthal was responding to a presentation to the county by Valecia McDowell, the chair of the Arts and Science Council. She told commissioners that Mecklenburg County’s arts funding is in “crisis.”

"In just the last six years, we’ve lost $2 million," McDowell said. "So forget about going all the way back to 2007. If you just go back two years – it’s $2 million gone from the sector."

But two days after McDowell said that, Gabbard, emailed county manager Dena Diorio, who is working to get the tax passed.

"The crisis and collapse of the cultural sector that ASC describes is not what most of us see," he wrote.

Workplace giving has dropped, he wrote, and that money is the ASC’s basis for “control and influence over the cultural sector.”

He added that “as that money declines, so does their influence, so I get why they feel in crisis. But to describe this as the imminent collapse of the cultural sector is total BS.”

WFAE obtained the emails through a public records request.

Gabbard told WFAE he and others were surprised in February about the ASC’s messaging.

"And particularly the message of a crisis in the cultural sector is something that we thought was not the right choice at the time, and is certainly not the right choice now," he said in an interview with WFAE.

Gabbard says he supports the sales tax increase, and that it can do a lot of good, especially by expanding cultural programs for low-income residents.

He worked in Denver in the early 1990s, and said he laid the ground work for a multi-county sales tax for the arts.

He wrote to Diorio that it was a “positive, expansive view….and that voters there didn’t support it because of the whiney, negative reasons ASC is articulating now.”

"We think there is a very legitimate argument to be made that the arts, and particularly the expansion of the arts that this would allow, can be part of the tool kit to deal with so many of the problems that are nagging Charlotte right now, that we need to do better on," Gabbard said in an interview.

He told Diorio to “Tell the ASC to stop talking about the decline of workplace giving immediately. They make us sound like entitled trust fund kids, whining about Daddy’s annual allowance going down."

He added that 99 percent of arts groups are “scared to death of the ASC.”

He said that because the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center receives a relatively small amount of funding from ASC - $225,000 - he is in a “unique position” in rallying peers.

In an email to Commissioner Susan Harden – who supports the tax – Gabbard included a chart from a county presentation.

It showed a steep decline in money given directly to the ASC, from $11.5 million in 2007 to $5 million in 2017.

But it also showed total donations to the arts sector had gone from $28 million to $41 million in that decade.

Harden says she supports the tax, despite Gabbard’s concerns about the ASC.

"For me, I think that debate is good. I think we need to think about how we support the arts and cultural sector in our community," she said. "The organizations have very different perspectives on how the best way to go about it is."

The money from the tax would go to the ASC, to be distributed to other arts groups.

McDowell, the ASC chair, said she has spent "hundreds of hours" speaking with Gabbard and other artists about what they need.

She said she has listened to Gabbard's criticisms, but she said the Blumenthal is not representative of most arts organizations. She said it's the closest thing Charlotte has to a for-profit arts organization, based in part on the Blumenthal having lucrative shows like "Hamilton."

She said the talk of an arts and cultural crisis is real.

"At the time, and this is still the case today, we're at an inflection point as a cultural sector," she said. "And so without some significant increase in public funding, we are going to see real impact on organizations. We're going to lose programming. We could lose organizations. We think that's likely to happen."

Since the tax could generate millions of new dollars, Diorio has proposed that the ASC - a non-profit that is not a public organization - be re-configured to ensure more transparency. But she's recommended against making the ASC a part of county government, which would make the organization subject to the state's open meeting and open records laws.

The tax, which would raise the county's general sales tax to 7.5 percent, is expected to raise $50 million a year.

Commissioners voted to give the arts a little less than first proposed – about $22.5 million instead of $24 million.
Parks and Greenways would get $17 million. Education would get $8 million. The six Mecklenburg towns would divvy up $2.5 million for arts and cultural projects.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.