Friday, December 15, 2006

The Vermont State Budget and the Arts

In my last column I tried to contextualize the National Endowment for the Arts budget in ways that might amuse or even shock readers. I promised to do the same for our own State General Fund and Arts Council appropriation in this column. So here goes.

The average taxpayer shells out $3,485 to fund the Vermont General Fund of $1.07 billion, of which about $530,000 supports arts activities, institutions and education throughout Vermont. Of the $3485 “average taxpayer” bill about $1.73 goes to support the programs and services of the Vermont Arts Council. Expressed as a percentage, the Arts Council’s appropriation is 495 ten-thousandths of 1% of the total State General Fund appropriation.

So here we are again—impossibly small percentages of impossible-to-imagine amounts of money. Let me make it a little more real for you . . .


* an eight-hour school day, the Arts Council’s appropriation would represent 14.26 seconds of arts activities. Coupled with its share of the Federal dollars (reported in my last column), the total amount of time available for the arts in this “school” would be 16.82 seconds per eight-hour day; barely enough time to sing the first line of the Vermont State Song. If the state were to budget “one minute” for the arts in this eight hour school day, the Council’s budget would jump to $2,229,000—slightly more than four times its current investment. For the record, this is unlikely to happen in our lifetime.

* a $30,000 per year salary, the amount of money available for the arts would be $14.85 per year—or about 57 cents out of every biweekly paycheck. If the legislature were to increase that investment to $1 every two weeks, the Council’s budget would make a more modest jump to $928,000. This might happen in our lifetime.

* equivalent to the annual budget of Montpelier, and the legislature were to apply the same percentage of its budget towards the Arts as Montpelier does (.066%), the State appropriation to the Arts Council would increase even more modestly to $706,200. If our economic development policy makers embrace Bill Schubart’s recent column in Seven Days, this might happen in the next couple of years.

Sadly, early indications are that we will be lucky if our budget stays at its current level. But I don’t like “lucky.” I’m the kind of guy who will go for the “one-minute of the eight-hour school day” and settle (reluctantly) for 30 seconds this year—more than doubling our appropriation—and going after the next 30 seconds next year. I’m the kind of guy who likes to point out that if we just charge each of the 46,000 tax payers who earn more than $75,000 a year the price of one family sized pizza with four toppings, we could triple the State’s investment in the Arts. (Now there’s a good idea!!)

But here’s the rub. I’m not going to do that. I can’t. It’s not because the cause isn’t noble and worth at least a pizza or two.

It’s because advocacy, in the end, is NOT about the money. All I’ve done is give you a sense of proportion when thinking about arts funding. None of us in the arts have enough money. Probably, we never will. Therefore, arts support is about something bigger. Something better.

I’ll clarify what I mean in my next column. In the meantime, go to a concert or two. Buy your loved ones gifts that someone you know, or know of, made by hand. (Palette note cards, anyone?) Support your local creative economy. And above all, be safe.

Happy Holidays.

Friday, December 1, 2006

The Federal Budget and the Arts

The election is behind us and now it is time to consider the arguments we have to make to all our recently elected officials that make the case for more arts support. The next few messages from me in this space will try to do this from the Council’s perspective. Feel free to give me your feedback and offer your own analysis, present your own findings, and include your own reasons for strengthening funding for the arts.

One of the most important first steps is to set a context.

The Federal budget is about $2.3 trillion (11 zeroes after the 3). The National Endowment for the Arts’ budget is $125 million—or about 54 ten-thousandths of a percent of the federal budget (.0054%). Since it’s hard to conceptualize what these numbers mean literally, I’ve made a few comparisons that you might find helpful as you talk to Congressman-elect Welch (Senator-elect Sanders and Senator Leahy have both heard this material before):


an eight-hour school day, then students would have just over 1.5 seconds to spend on artistic pursuits. But if the Congress were to budget just “one minute” of this eight-hour day to the arts, the NEA budget would become $4.8 billion.

a $30,000 per year salary, the amount of money available for the arts would be about $1.62 per year—or just over six cents out of every biweekly paycheck! If Congress were to budget just one dollar every two weeks to support the arts, the NEA budget would be $1.99 billion.

equal to the annual budget of Montpelier, VT (the smallest US capital city) of $15 million, then Montpelier would only spend $810 a year supporting the arts. BUT! Montpelier actually spends $10,000 per year supporting the arts—or about 66 thousandths of one percent (.066%) of its annual budget.

to devote the same percentage of its budget to support the arts that Montpelier does, then the NEA’s budget would equal $1.33 billion (.066% x $2.3 trillion) which would represent a 1226% increase over the current level of NEA support of $125 million.
Every year lobbyists like me descend on Washington (in March) to increase the NEA’s budget. Every year we are told to be happy with a five or 10 million dollar increase.

Well…I’m not happy. I want that “minute” of the arts in the school. I want that dollar every two weeks in my paycheck. I want Montpelier to set the tone for the US Government’s priorities where arts support is concerned. It seems reasonable—especially given the scale of what we are talking about. The impact on tax payers? Well, if each of my fingers represented a dollar, you could count the impact on each taxpayer on the fingers of my right hand.

My next column will do a similar analysis of the Vermont State Budget….