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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

Tax in Spokane on movies, events could soon pay for art

Art in Spokane may soon get some new patrons: film junkies, Zags fans and concertgoers.

Under a proposal by City Council President Ben Stuckart, arts funding would jump from $80,000 to about $250,000 a year. The funding would come from the city’s admissions tax, an existing charge on every ticket sold to enter a venue or attend an event, including movies, sporting events, concerts and art shows. A third of the tax taken in by the city would go to arts funding.

About $100,000 would be used for Spokane Arts operations. The remainder would be available to local artists and art organizations through a grant program.

“We need art,” said Stuckart, who said he campaigned on strengthening art funding during his two elections to council. “Cities thrive when the arts thrive.”

The proposal will be considered by the Spokane City Council on March 14.

Money collected under the admissions tax, which generates about $765,000 annually, goes to the city’s general fund. Stuckart said he expects no other city programs to be affected by his proposal.

Laura Becker, Spokane Arts’ executive director, said she was excited about the stability the funding would provide.

“It will be a great leap forward for Spokane Arts,” she said. “Every year we have to vie for funding in the budget. It’s a lot of work to get that in the budget. We really need to have the stability that this law would afford, and it allows us to do the work we should be doing.”

Spokane Arts manages public art for the city and the Spokane Public Facilities District, which manages the Convention Center, Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena and INB Performing Arts Center. That includes the new murals in the railway viaducts, the military memorial at the arena and the jumping fish sculpture on the Division Street traffic triangle at Spokane Falls Boulevard, which people have taken to calling the “disco fish,” Becker said.

Spokane Arts was created in 2012 and is a joint effort between the Spokane Arts Fund and the Spokane Arts Commission. It receives city dollars, though the facilities district, Downtown Spokane Partnership and Visit Spokane also contribute about $80,000 in funding.

Becker said the details of the grant program, which is set to begin January 2017, have not been established, but she would like it to be a “fairly low-barrier grant program” that requires no matching funds from the artist or organization.

“In my short time here, one of the most vocal requests that we have gotten from the arts and culture heritage community is they need funds,” Becker said, noting the city will not be a “patron” to artists to see what they create, but rather fund projects that are already thought-through. “We’re funneling that back into the community. Our hands had been tied over that. But to have a healthy arts scene, it’s really important to support it.”

Considering the explosion of art in Spokane – Terrain, First Friday, downtown murals, the poet laureate program, the art and design awards, the signal box project on Second and Third avenues, the profusion of local authors – it’s easy to forget the city’s role behind some of these projects. It’s even easier to forget the troubles the city’s arts program has faced over the years.

Though Stuckart points to the elimination of the city’s art department in 2012 as a low point, arts funding in Spokane always has been precarious. When Karen Mobley was hired as the city’s arts director in 1997, she replaced Sue Ellen Heflin, who said in 1995 that “10 years of bureaucratic wrangling and always being on the firing line took its toll.”

During midyear budget cuts in 2004, two positions were slashed from the department, leaving only Mobley. The following year, council members discussed eliminating the department altogether, putting its $140,000 annual budget elsewhere.

In 2011, Mayor Mary Verner threatened to eliminate the department and its $160,000 budget. The following year, Mayor David Condon followed through on that threat, but along with Stuckart created a nonprofit group outside of City Hall, called Spokane Arts, to take over the functions of the defunct department.

The city put $100,000 in the fund in 2013, with plans to slowly ratchet the funding down. The City Council, however, kept the funding steady at $80,000.

Gavin Cooley, the city’s chief financial officer, said he is “always hesitant to see any dent” in the city’s budget. But given how early in the year it is, Cooley said, the budget would be fine.

“We’re always struggling with that structural gap, so something like this is something we have to contend with,” Cooley said, referring to the difference in revenue and spending at the city. “We’ve had really collaborative conversations, so I feel confident we’ll get this figured out by year end.”

There has been no structural gap in the city’s budget since 2013.

Stuckart said he is confident the funding would not become a pawn in budget negotiations.

“We’re doing it this early in the year so there is no budget trade-off, and we’re making it permanent by ordinance, so there’s not a budget fight every year,” Stuckart said. “The city’s yearly budget is $800 million. This isn’t some unreasonable big budget-buster.”

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