Tuesday, December 21, 2010

ACT 160 UPDATE, Vermont Performing Arts Organizations, PLEASE READ!!

Act 160, the omnibus tax bill signed into law last spring (May, 2010) contains language that will require those of you that sell $50,000 or more in tickets to performances this year to charge a 6% sales tax on tickets to your events starting this April 1st.

We have just learned that ANY organization that uses a third-party ticketing outlet will probably have to charge the sales tax, EVEN IF YOU SOLD LESS THAN $50,000-WORTH OF TICKETS IN 2010!! The reason for this is that the Tax Department is interpreting the statute to read that the ticket seller is responsible for collecting the tax, therefore it is the ticket-seller's threshold, not the presenting entity's threshold, that matters.

Therefore, REGARDLESS of whether you believe this law will apply to you starting in April, WILL ALL OF YOU PLEASE fill out our incredibly brief questionnaire on the subject, by clicking HERE?

If you filled out a similar survey we sent out last spring, please fill it out again--you probably have more accurate numbers to report anyway...

Thank you!

Whose Art is it Anyway?

Much has already been written about the (Hide/Seek) brouhaha over David Wojnarowicz’s video “Fire in My Belly” at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Last week the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts’ director, John Killacky wrote a wonderful commentary on the issue—giving some much needed context to his position that the Smithsonian was profoundly wrong to remove the video from the exhibit.

Wojnarowicz died in 1992 of AIDS, but his work, much as it did in the late 1980s, apparently continues to drive some people over the edge. Why?

Outside of church, people invoke the Lord, God, Jesus, or any number of Saints for a variety of reasons; usually to celebrate something good that has just happened to them (“Before I thank the Academy for this award, I’d like to first thank God…”) or because something bad has just happened, or is in the process of happening. For people who face death, a crucifix serves as a talisman of something spiritual and redemptive; a tangible reminder that Christ suffered for our sins and that the journey to the next place will be made bearable by His suffering and His presence.

So why is it somehow more acceptable for an NFL wide-receiver to catch a pass in the end-zone, point to the sky, and drop to one knee for a short prayer, than for an artist, suffering from AIDS, to use a video-image of a crucifix covered in ants to express, in part, the pain and torture of his condition? Aren’t these two sides of the same coin? If it’s okay to include God in your victory dance, shouldn’t it also be okay to include God in your rants against pain and suffering?

From where I sit, the Church (Catholic or otherwise) has pretty broad shoulders and casts a pretty large net. Millions of the faithful will not suffer as a result of Wojnarowicz’s work being exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery (despite the fact that some of the video is for mature audiences). In fact, Wojnarowicz’s video will probably bring more people to a more spiritual place than will the US House Speaker-elect’s efforts to remove it from view.

So what is really going on here?

Somehow, 25 years ago, it became politically acceptable for some politicians to impose their own intolerant moral and religious views on all Americans, and this is the latest chapter in their war on people who “aren’t like them.”

I guess we are supposed to ignore the fact that people who aren’t conservative Christians also pay taxes, represent us in Congress, fight for us every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, and (for those of us with large families or large circles of friends) are loved and respected by us without question. In the eyes of a few powerful political leaders, you can’t be a “non-conservative-Christian,” create works of art using religious icons, AND have your work exhibited in a publicly-funded institution all at the same time. Why? Because you’re DIFFERENT.

Sadly, the Director of the Smithsonian removed the work without even inviting the critics on Capitol Hill to come and view it for themselves. Had he done so, an important educational dialogue might have opened.

The real question is, how tolerant can we be, or should we be, of someone else’s art if that person’s sexual orientation and/or religious views give offense? I was raised with the understanding that true Christians should be tolerant and forgiving, and that before judging others I should walk in their shoes. Aren’t elected politicians elected to represent ALL the voters, even the ones who are different?

In my view, the Government is supposed to do more than feed and clothe people, ensure their safety, and provide shelter. It should also enable a clear and accurate record of our collective journey through life to be documented and preserved. AIDS, while less in the news than it was 20 years ago, is still poignantly with us. Gay artists have always been with us, and always will be, as will their art. Religions will always compete for followers, especially in this country where freedom from religious persecution is guaranteed by our Constitution.

The Smithsonian is, if nothing else, the MOST appropriate place to present the record of one artist’s journey with AIDS. Like it or not, we all pay taxes, and we’re all going to die—some of us very slowly and painfully. Bottom line, David Wojnarowicz’s journey is our journey, his art is our art, even if Speaker-elect Boehner doesn’t seem to know it yet.

For more on this subject, click here.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

To all Vermont Performing Arts Organizations...

Act 160, the omnibus tax bill signed into law last spring (May, 2010) contains language that will require those of you that sell $50,000 or more in tickets to performances this year to charge a 6% sales tax on tickets to your events starting this April 1st.

We still do not have accurate numbers from all of you about what impact this will have on Vermont revenues. Furthermore, there have been questions from various sources about what impact this would have if this tax applied to ALL performing arts organizations that sold tickets (ie., eliminating the threshold of $50,000).

Therefore, REGARDLESS of whether you believe this law will apply to you starting in April, WILL ALL OF YOU PLEASE fill out our incredibly brief questionnaire on the subject, by clicking HERE?

If you filled out a similar survey we sent out last spring, please fill it out again--you probably have more accurate numbers to report anyway...

And, since my most recent post commenting on Doug Hoffer's fine report commissioned by Melinda Moulton ran without Artmail, please scroll down...

Thank you!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Time for Thanksgiving

A couple of weeks ago, policy analyst and man-who-would-be-auditor Doug Hoffer issued a four-page report on the Economic Footprint of the Arts in Vermont to Melinda Moulton, the Burlington entrepreneur and developer who commissioned it. I have known Melinda for a few years and had many rich conversations with her about the relationship between healthy communities and the arts and whenever the conversation has turned to a discussion about the “economic impact of the Arts in Vermont” we have argued about the benefit of doing such a study.

In my 35 years in the arts I have read hundreds of such studies, all of which have been commissioned by a local, state, or regional arts commission or arts advocacy group. With great anticipation, and usually at great cost, organizers of these studies have spent months articulating exactly what they hope to achieve, more months gathering data (most of the time in the form of questionnaires and surveys), and even more months crafting and publishing their reports which, with very few exceptions, prove only that the arts matter to a lot of people—a fact that I consider self-evident.

Most of them claim things like “every dollar spent on the arts has a seven to 13-dollar impact on the community where it’s spent;” or “studies prove that if your child studies a sequential program of art in school he/she will score 30-50 points higher on standardized tests, including college entrance exams.”

The problem with such claims is that policy-makers (legislators in particular) are very smart people and have access to even smarter people to advise them on how to interpret such claims. It turns out that while it may be true that a dollar spent at the Flynn may circulate throughout the Burlington economy, changing hands seven to 13 times before it finds itself in the wallet of a Jet Blue passenger to Fort Lauderdale—that is not economic impact, that’s just economic activity.

Also, while it might be true that kids that study the arts do have higher scores, on average, than those who don’t, there is nothing that says the relationship is causal. A far likelier reason might be that schools that have sequential arts programs for all their students are probably in wealthier communities. Wealth and parental educational achievement is a far likelier reason a kid does well in both the arts AND on standardized tests. The relationship between arts study and test scores is therefore, at best, correlative—not causal.

Sorry to burst your bubbles.

So why am I thankful? Because for the first time an independent policy analyst who, it turns out, is probably even more skeptical than I am about these types of studies, has been commissioned by a local businessperson who is anxious to prove that it IS possible to derive important, “impactful” conclusions about the arts in Vermont. Even more important, the cost of deriving these conclusions was a small fraction of what such studies usually cost. If I understand correctly, Doug looked at a variety of data, all readily available from sources like the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Census, and Vermont’s Dept. of Labor, and examined them through an “arts prism.”

Full disclosure: yes, I had a couple of preliminary conversations with Doug last spring after he was first approached by Melinda. In both cases, however, rather than extolling the virtues of previous studies and recommending them to him as examples of how to do his own work, I spent virtually all of our time on the phone sharing my own deeply-held suspicions, my frustration at how conclusions tended to be exaggerated and therefore unsupportable, and my concerns that very little would come of his work that would be helpful.

I like to believe that my attitude may have helped Doug to achieve the nearly-impossible.

First, Doug ignored “the Creative Economy” since studies about it include for-profit organizations whose work is based on “creative outputs.” Thus, Doug's study isn’t larded up with movie theaters, book stores, gaming studios, and other such enterprises which largely serve as a distraction to what most people are trying to focus on when they think of an “arts impact analysis.”

Second, he focused the bulk of his own analysis on hard data (not surveys) that other sectors use when reporting on their own impact, and he kept it simple, focusing, it appears, only on employment, compensation, and tax data, which are standard data sets and very easy to defend.

Third, his methodology, using IMPLAN analysis, is a standard tool used by almost all policy analysts/economists to help understand or at least gauge the scope of operations that a particular sector encompasses. When economists tell a governor, for example, that it is “a good investment” to offer $5 million in tax breaks to a high-tech manufacturing company as an inducement for them to locate here in Vermont, there is a strong likelihood that someone, somewhere has used IMPLAN to help make the case.

Finally, Doug does not allow himself to render an opinion about “impact” related to the arts and community livability, student engagement, interpersonal and intercultural relationships, health, social capital, and so on. He shares a chart with some of the findings from a group at Princeton and leaves it to the reader to agree or disagree with those findings. Instead, his only statement about impact relates to the income to state and local governments from taxes collected as a result of all the activity in Vermont that is related to the Vermont arts sector.

The bottom line for me is this: we finally have a number…a defensible number derived by a certified skeptic not in the arts and not commissioned by an arts organization, derived using a standard and widely accepted methodology, to reveal what many of us have long suspected: “the state and local tax impact (emphasis mine) of the arts in Vermont is $19,438,480.”

How about that?!!

Like a good skeptic, I had to find out what that meant in ROI terms. Sure, $19.5 million might be the income, but what is the total investment?

I am aware of only a few cities and towns that invest local tax dollars directly in the arts, and a phone call to a couple dozen of Vermont’s best known “art towns” indicates that the aggregate local investment is less than $500,000.* This figure, combined with the State’s investment in the arts (including appropriations from the General and Capital Funds, and line items for the Vermont Symphony, Humanities Council, and Historical Society, results in a total State/Local investment of less than $2.5 million.

Thus, the total ROI for state/local funds invested is just under 800%. And this is not a return over time, this is a return every year. It is also a return that takes place even though the most significant public relations engine in state government (the Dept. of Tourism and Marketing) until very recently (like maybe yesterday) has not considered the arts to be a factor in the Vermont Brand, and that with the notable exception of Vermont Life Magazine, the state has done very little to publicize the arts in Vermont.

To me the policy implications of this report are not only big, but they are important. And it all is something to be profoundly thankful for!

*Burlington leads all towns and municipalities with direct grants and services to arts organizations and activities totaling about $350,000. Coming in a surprising, though very distant second, is Killington whose local arts investment is about $27,500. Jericho is third at $10,000. Most Vermont municipalities and towns have no direct support for the arts, and of those that do, the investment is usually manifested through the Recreation department budget and ranges between a few hundred dollars and $2,500. --ALA