Spokane Arts Director Karen Mobley says that by the end of the year she’ll likely be out of a job. Her bosses won’t go that far. Nothing has been finalized, they say. But the preliminary city arts budget staked out
for 2013 doesn’t include enough to pay for Mobley, and plans are being made to instead give a smaller amount – less than half of what the city currently spends on the arts – to a nonprofit arts group.
The proposal is troubling to many supporters of the arts, who have already watched the department shrink over the years; last year the City Council cut the arts budget, though not as much as had been proposed by then-Mayor Mary Verner.
“It will be a major cultural tragedy for this city,” said Sue Bradley, who owns the Tinman Gallery in the Garland Business District. “The question is, what does the city stand for?”
City leaders who are contemplating the move say while they support the arts, something has to give because up to $10 million must be cut to balance Spokane’s 2013 budget.
“Arts are very important to our community. Do I think the city needs to be directing the arts? Probably not,” City Councilman Mike Allen said. “I’d feel we’d be more effective investing in a local partner.”
Jan Quintrall, the director of business and developer services, the division that includes the Arts Department, said the budget for arts in 2012 is about $155,000. She said she’s considering cutting that to $60,000 or $70,000, which could be used by a nonprofit arts group.
“We need to find a permanent solution,” said Quintrall, who noted that the department is often threatened when administrators craft city budgets. “I’m looking at how we can support the arts in Spokane, which is critically important, without doing it out of City Hall because it’s so expensive to deliver anything out of City Hall.”
Supporters of the department, however, argue that the city gets a bargain. The one-woman Arts Department oversees 229 pieces of art on city property, including the high-profile sculptures in Riverfront Park like the suction goat and Radio Flyer wagon. Mobley sometimes does minor repair work on them.
She curates several exhibits a year at the Chase Art Gallery at City Hall and oversees the Spokane Arts Commission. She coordinates volunteers to help her with projects that include the program in which kids paint murals beneath freeway and railroad overpasses. She creates artist and art organization directories and helps connect artists to galleries and businesses that might display their work.
“When you have somebody who is in City Hall regularly interfacing with the mayor and City Council, you have opportunities to, frankly, have influence that if you were an employee someplace else, you may not,” Mobley said.
For instance, she said, she’s currently working to extend the city’s sculpture walk from Riverfront Park into Kendall Yards, a real estate development under construction on the north bank of the Spokane River west of Monroe Street. That project takes extensive coordination with city leaders and staff, she said.
Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, a former member of the Spokane Arts Commission, intervened with administrators last month after rumors leaked from City Hall that the arts program might be cut before the end of the year. Stuckart is now working with Quintrall on the plan to maintain some arts funding.
“The city contribution to the arts and culture to this community is of paramount importance,” Stuckart said. “I won’t let a solution to be brought forward that doesn’t reflect that.”
He said his vision includes enough city funding to maintain an arts position, but “It may not be located in City Hall.”
Officials said they considered ideas to partner with the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, but abandoned them because of the recent turmoil on the museum’s board. MAC trustees are facing significant backlash from museum members, donors and volunteers for firing the MAC director in April without providing an explanation.
“I wish they would get their house in order,” Quintrall said.
One idea gaining momentum is to turn the funding over to the Spokane Arts Fund, which was created a few decades ago so private donors could make donations to city art projects, Mobley said. The fund, which has about $28,000, is overseen by a board that has the same members as the Arts Commission.
The idea is similar to what officials did last year after the City Council agreed with Verner to eliminate the city-run Spokane Regional Youth Department. The city agreed to fund an existing foundation that partnered with the city’s Chase Youth Commission and Youth Department. That foundation is now charged with keeping the Chase Youth Commission functioning.
There have been mixed reviews of how well the commission has fared without a City Hall department working with it.
North Central High School student Jeremiah Johnson resigned from the commission in April in frustration. He said adults working on behalf of the foundation often ignored the decisions made by the youth commissioners.
“The commission was much, much stronger” before it was removed from City Hall, he said. “Over time you could see the commission declining.”
But Richelle McDermott, the chairman of the commission, said she believes the transfer was a success.
“It made us more self-reliant,” she said.
Quintrall said the city’s goal is to have a plan in place for the arts funding before the Arts Department is dismantled. Last year, Verner laid off the two employees of the Youth Department before the city had decided how to maintain the Chase Youth Commission.
“We’re using the Chase Youth model, but we want to do it more strategically, not so herky-jerky,” she said.
Mayor David Condon said he has given his division leaders, including Quintrall, until June 15 to propose preliminary budgets so that he’ll have six weeks to craft his own budget plan before presenting it to City Council in August.
He said he has not decided how much funding arts should receive or if the department should be eliminated.
“I’m committed to the arts,” Condon said. “It is a key part of the fabric of our city.”