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Costs of Culture 

Organizations say the city is not spending enough to promote the arts

NEW ARTiculations Dance Theatre, a Tucson-based nonprofit dance company, has for 11 years worked with established and emerging choreographers to stage productions that combine dance with theater and literature.

This interdisciplinary approach suits special projects director Kimi Eisele, herself a dancer and writer. NEW ARTiculations' current outreach project, "We Are What We Eat," is an ongoing series of community workshops in which participants discuss food issues, such as access to healthy food, industrialized farming and globalization's effects on local food markets.

"What better way to talk about food issues than with our bodies?" says Eisele. The ideas, stories and dances that emerge during the workshops are being synthesized into a dance production.

Community arts projects like this are not necessarily hard to find in Tucson--but they can be difficult for arts organizations to fund.

"It can be really hard," Eisele says. And it's only getting harder.

The Pima Cultural Plan, an in-depth study of the state of the arts conducted by the Tucson Pima Arts Council, was made public in mid-February. The verdict: Since 1989, the city of Tucson's budget has grown 282 percent, while city support of the Arts Council has dropped, from $1 million annually to $691,000.

The Cultural Plan also highlights cultural needs, including the renovation of aging facilities, the enrichment of Tucson's aesthetic and cultural characteristics in support of tourism, and better support for arts-related organizations.

Falling funding has forced the Arts Council to reduce the amount of money it re-grants to organizations, says Arts Council executive director Roberto Bedoya. The maximum project grant request has dropped from $10,000 to $6,000, and it is rare for requests to be granted in full.

"It's chump change," says Michael McNulty, a member of the arts council's board of directors. "The arts grant funding is a valuable thing, but it's starting to feel like handing out baloney sandwiches to the artists."

Though relatively small, Arts Council grants still represent the bread and butter of many smaller local arts organizations, and approximately 80 Tucson nonprofits receive them.

While Arts Council grants represent only 3 percent of NEW ARTiculations' overall budget, these grants are integral to projects like "We Are What We Eat," says Eisele. An Arts Council artist-in-residence grant pays for her special projects director position. "TPAC is the only local arts council, so we rely heavily on them," she says. "Without them, we'd have to get quite creative in how we seek funding."

In response to the Cultural Plan, the Arts Council has requested about $1.5 million annually from the city for the next two years--more than doubling the $691,000 it got last year. This may sound like a large increase, but it only amounts to half of the average per-capita arts funding that's provided by similar-sized cities, says McNulty, in a recent press release.

"It bites," he says when asked about the trend. "... The numbers tell it all."

City Councilwoman Karin Uhlich commends the thoroughness of the Pima Cultural Plan. "We also need this kind of thoroughness (of research) in all areas of the city's budget," she says.

However, the Arts Council's funding-boost request could hardly come at a worse time. City Manager Mike Hein recently projected a $12 million shortfall in the city's $1.25 billion budget.

"It's going to be difficult to increase funding in any area," says Andrew Greenhill, Mayor Bob Walkup's chief of staff. He cites another plan: the city's Fiscal Sustainability Plan. "We are about to enter year three (of the plan)," says Greenhill. "Mayor Walkup's priority is to stick to the plan. If we do, we can bring our police and fire department staffing levels to national standards and repair our streets and parks to the levels of quality our citizens expect."

The Arts Council receives both city and county funds, and the city's support of the Arts Council represents only a fraction of the full $2.25 million that the city of Tucson appropriated to arts and culture last year. The rest of the money went directly to art companies and facilities like Access Tucson, museums and the Tucson Botanical Gardens. It's the Arts Council's role to re-grant money to smaller arts organizations.

Arts funding comes out of the general fund. Uhlich says this practice is problematic, and she believes locating a designated revenue source for the arts is the best way to provide sustainable support.

However, the Arts Council alleges that a revenue source has already been designated: Representatives say that a 1988 bed tax was earmarked for the arts, but the money went into the general fund instead.

City officials seemed reluctant or unable to give details on the bed tax. Uhlich says it's unclear whether the bed-tax motion earmarked a flat dollar amount or a proportional amount for the arts. "It's important that we figure that out ... and stay true to the spirit of the motion," she says. Uhlich says she has an aide investigating the matter.

Greenhill denies that there is any evidence that the bed tax was ever officially earmarked for the arts.

Arts Council deputy director David Hoyt Johnson, who was with the Arts Council in 1988, also has trouble remembering the details, but he says the portion of the bed tax explicitly set aside for arts and culture enrichment was later ruled to be an illegal tax-revenue designation.

In response to these conflicting reports, Bedoya says, "All I know is that the money went into the general fund, even though the public perception is that it went to the arts."

Meanwhile, the city, county and Arts Council need to work to find a compromise in a year sure to be marked by budget cutbacks.

"It's pretty clear that nothing is going to happen anytime soon when it comes to a designated revenue source," says Greenhill, "but finishing the Cultural Plan is a step in the right direction."

Meanwhile, arts organizations are getting creative to find money.

"We are realizing, because of limited (government) arts funding, that partnering with other organizations and institutions can allow us to ... find new funding sources," Eisele says. For example, "We Are What We Eat" is a collaboration with the Community Food Bank. But such collaborations also have drawbacks, Eisele warns: Partnering often necessitates an awkward shift in artistic emphasis, and corporate sponsorship can lead to uncomfortable compromises.

"If we lose the (Arts) Council, we might have to make too many sacrifices and lose the integrity of our work," Eisele says. "We can get creative and partner with the Food Bank, but that isn't going to support the overhead and overall costs. ... It's the role of the city and county to support its arts."

More by Andrew Mortazavi

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