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As Arts Tax Vote Nears, It's Unclear Who Would Be In Charge

The new Mint Museum.
The Mint Museum would like to waive its admission fee for its general collection. Could the new quarter-cent arts sales tax make that possible? No one knows.

The Mint Museum's new president has a goal: Make the museum accessible as possible.

"One way to do that is obviously to be free, to not have admission charge," said president Todd Herman.

He hopes a proposed quarter-cent sales tax for the arts could let the Mint become free, waiving the $15 ticket. Today, the Mint has one night – Wednesdays – when it doesn’t charge. 

"It tends to skew younger. And families," he said. "The Lewis Family Gallery is very popular on Wednesday nights. There are all sorts of engaging activities for parents and kids."

Herman says having no admission charge would let more low-income residents visit the museum.

But there has been little talk – and no concrete plans – about using the money to let museums be free. 

Instead, the Arts and Science Council has said the new arts money would increase arts education programs into low-income communities, and the organization has said the money would prevent a “crisis” due to a decline in workplace giving.

The people supporting the tax – the ASC and Mecklenburg commissioners – have different views on who is in charge.

The ASC says it’s the county’s decision. The county says it’s the ASC’s job.

"Ultimately the county is going to decide how this money is going to get spent," said Valecia McDowell, chair of the ASC. "Based on the conversations I’ve been in with the county, I have every reason to believe there are going to be a significant number of free days. Whether or not that could have been cleared up earlier, or what have you, these are complicated issues because there are a lot of things the county has to consider."

But don’t count on Mecklenburg commissioners making that decision, says Commissioner Mark Jerrell, who supports the tax. 

Within a month, he expects County Manager Dena Diorio to recommend a new organization that would replace or modify the ASC.

That organization would decide how to spend the money, he said.

"The board will vote on the governance model, and depending on what that governance model looks like, that will determine who will ultimately make that call," Jerrell said.

Commissioner Trevor Fuller, who supports the arts tax, also isn’t sure who would be in charge.

"What is the mechanism for that?" Fuller asked. "It won’t be county commissioners taking votes, I don’t think."

Mecklenburg commissioners voted to place a quarter-cent sales tax on the November ballot, and almost half of the $50 million raised would go to the arts. The rest would go to education and parks and greenways.

Herman says the Mint Museum would need $500,000 a year to make its general collection free all the time.

Discovery Place, for instance, generates about $5.7  million from admission charges, but that also includes summer camps. Discovery Place has its Welcome program that lets people who receive EBT or WIC benefits visit Discovery Place for $1 a day.

Jerrell says he’s not focused on what he calls “the bigs” – the city’s major museums. 

"My focus is deploying resources into our areas that are most critical," he said. "I’m looking at how do we have sustained programming in specific communities that are underserved right now?"

As the campaign begins, there has been some tension in the arts community over the ASC’s early messaging on selling the tax to commissioners and the public.

Tom Gabbard, president of the Blumenthal, told Diorio in an email that the city’s arts community is not in a crisis as the ASC has said. He also said the ASC should “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."

The vote on the quarter-cent sales tax will be Nov. 5 – in less than three months. 

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.