Arts Earmark Rage

Arts Earmark Rage

Ill-considered DC public arts policy came raging home to roost at the Council of the District of Columbia last Friday as DC citizens brought passionate protest to the 2009 Budget Hearings. No wonder. DC Government arts policy consists of funding organizations that need it the least, without regard for merit or local impact. The focus of the rage: a $10 million grant to Ford’s Theatre.

Ford’s Theater, a National Historic Site run by the National Parks Service, swarms with out-of-town children during the day. A nonprofit runs Ford’s at night as a venue for touring productions, with few local artists. Imagine the intensity of the rage if local artists realized the generosity national corporations have shown Ford’s, and the direct noncompetitive subsidy the organization gets from the Federal government.

Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans doesn’t think it’s such a big deal, since the Council has done this kind of thing before without public scrutiny or protest, giving millions in public funds to Arena Stage, the Harman Center and Washington Ballet. Those are fine organizations that benefit local audiences and local artists, but they attract corporate funds and are eligible for direct noncompetitive Federal subsidies. Smaller groups, regardless of merit, do not have these options and, unlike groups in surrounding jurisdictions, do not have city, county, and state public funding opportunities. DC Government is their only possible source of public funds.

The Ford’s fiasco has united the District’s cultural community, and the Council can expect similar earmark scrutiny and rage for the rest of the century.  From now on, arts earmarks are going to be political dynamite, making councilmembers more foes than friends. This is a perfect time for the Council and Mayor Fenty to follow the lead of Mayor Mike Bloomberg and the New York City Council.

In January 2007, Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council agreed on a new transparent, merit-based competitive cultural funding system, with peer-review panels and a city-wide review process called CultureStat. The Mayor had a message for arts groups: “They can stop all the lobbying, and get back to what they’re supposed to be doing.” “I am excited about no longer seeing all of those institutions on the steps of City Hall,” said Council speaker Christine Quinn. The City Council could get back to what it was supposed to be doing, too.

Mayor Fenty and District Councilmembers were not elected because of their artistic acumen. Stop them from slathering millions on cultural organizations without a clue. Insist on a transparent, merit-based, peer-reviewed, competitive cultural funding system for the District of Columbia.

Speak to your councilmember, and say “Remember Ford’s Theatre.”

2 Responses to “Arts Earmark Rage”

  1. DC Council Earmarks « NotionsCapital Says:

    […] warned you about that Ford’s Theatre […]

  2. Report Indicts DC Council Earmarks « NotionsCapital Says:

    […] NotionsCapital posts about this issue here and […]

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