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Are you willing to pay for a healthy arts scene? 

Financially flat-lining, local arts organizations have a plan to get healthy, but it's going to hurt a lot before it gets much better.

Imagine being called to the hospital. Your loved one is in the critical-care unit on life support. The doctor takes you aside and, in a somber voice, tells you your family member is in really bad shape and you've got a couple of options. "We could do nothing, and he/she would most likely survive. But I can say with some certainty that their quality of life will be extremely poor and full of stress, and, sooner or later, you're going to watch them go through a long, slow painful decline before the end finally comes. Or, you could decide to take some drastic action now, and give me the authority to do some extensive surgery that would allow for a radically different life for many years ahead. But you need to be clear about this: The latter will involve a lot more work from you and your loved one in the short term, and will cost you more upfront, at least at first. So: What do you want to do?"

Indeed. 'What do you want to do' is essentially the dilemma this region's cultural and artistic community is facing, following a decade in which the funding systems that had been in place began to break down, through a time in which attitudes about public funding were constantly shifting in terms of their priority on the list of a community's "needs" as opposed to "wants" — and that was all before the Great Recession hit.

Which leads us to these basic questions that you, as a member of this community, now must answer: How important is a vibrant cultural life, a thriving arts scene, to the well-being of this region? Are you willing to pay for it? If so, how? Through public funding — meaning, of course, your tax contributions? Charitable donations? Of the latter, how do we know those will be sufficient, or consistent enough, for the affected organizations to be able to plan their budgets dependably, year-to-year, through the ups and downs of a cycling economy, as we've just experienced?

Maybe the problems our local arts organizations are faced with boil down to this philosophical conundrum: Whose responsibility is it to see that the cultural life of this city, county and region is healthy, vibrant and growing? After all, culture is a vital part of any community's quality of life; it is a major contributor to a region's overall economic prosperity.

But to those closest to local cultural organizations, it's now become abundantly clear that the old system of funding is outdated and must be revamped. The need is seen to be so urgent, in fact, that for the past two years, former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl has been secretly raising corporate money for the arts. His Thrive fundraising campaign has raised $34 million and serves as an effort to reverse at least one critical segment of the decade-long decline in the cultural community's fortunes: the charitable-giving part. But that still leaves unanswered the problems in funding coming from the public sector.

"Funding for the arts simply doesn't have the same priority that it once did," said Parks Helms, one of the region's leading business and civic leaders, who spoke in advance of the Thrive announcement. "For a community to thrive, it needs to develop its character, and that's what the arts, a cultural life, helps to do. It's critical for new businesses that are considering relocating; the first question they always ask is about education and the cultural life — and only after that do they ask about taxes."

WHEN I FIRST talked to my editor last month about looking into the state of Charlotte-Mecklenburg's cultural and artistic life, I expected to find that things were really, really bad. One of the first, most-telling things that struck me when I returned to town last year after more than a 12-year absence was that a notorious local opponent of public funding for the arts, Mecklenburg County commissioner Bill James, still occupied a seat of power, wielding his sword as a watchdog of what is right, proper and moral, at least where taxpayers' money is concerned.

And the issue of funding for the arts itself, which blew up almost two decades ago during the now-infamous Angels In America battle, seemed not to have changed much. In fact, newspaper headlines boasted yet another political battle surrounding the subject, along with yet another study from one more committee that had been organized to "fix" the problem, supposedly, this time once and for all.

In mid-June, the Cultural Life Task Force (CLTF) released its 174-page report outlining the state of arts funding locally, along with its recommendations on how to deal with both a current shortfall and a longer-term need. Around the same time, the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners had narrowly voted to include some arts funding in a controversial sales-tax referendum scheduled to go before the voters this November.

Recently, Creative Loafing reported on the very different experiences of two arts organizations: After closing briefly, The Light Factory, somewhat amazingly, was reborn, largely through the actions of a determined, hard-working board of directors. But Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, not long after its production of Angels In America (given the touchy history around that show, I was surprised to hear of its return), announced its closure in June, because, as last week's cover story concluded, its board simply gave up.

Stepping back to look at the big picture, I realized it wasn't a pretty one. I wasn't optimistic about what I was going to find as I dug down a bit deeper, past the headlines, into the depths of that study, and began talking to many of the people whose lives, time and energy were so intertwined with the situation.

But the story turned out not quite to be the one I expected to write. Even with this week's news, the patient is in the critical-care unit, and the outlook might still be bleak. But let's look at the big picture before you make any snap judgments just yet.

FUNDING BEGAN to be an issue as early as 2003 when, according to Arts and Science Council president Robert Bush, Mecklenburg County began reducing its annual allocation of public funding. The biggest cut came in 2004, and by 2011, the County had withdrawn virtually all of what it was contributing, which, at its highest point, totaled $2 million annually. At the same time, the number of groups the ASC supported grew, as it added the area's historical organizations to its mix, per the County's request. (The Levine Museum of the New South, the Latta Plantation, the Trolley Museum, among others, had once been supported by the County.) The money went away — but not the responsibilities.

Along the way, the 2008 recession hit, bringing a host of changes in the banking industry locally, and a fairly drastic change in charitable contribution levels to the cultural community, both by way of company donations and from those provided by their employees. The CLTF's study concluded there's now about an $8 million shortfall in the amount the area's organizations need to operate annually.

"In 2008, the bottom fell out, and there was a snowball effect," Bush told me, "but earned income — money generated by things like ticket sales — continued to be fairly steady, because people weren't traveling as much, and were looking for a way to get their cultural fix locally. But 'contributed income' dropped off fairly dramatically, primarily in workplace giving, largely through a change to the corporate philosophy, because even though, for example, the Bank of America has not changed what it does dramatically, Wells Fargo's philanthropic philosophy is very different, and the reality is that Wells Fargo is not based here, it's based out West. While they've been very generous with their support of the arts community here as compared to when it was still Wachovia, it's not quite the same as it was with people like Hugh McColl and Ed Crutchfield [former CEO of First Union which became Wachovia, and then Wells Fargo] running things, and strongly encouraging their employees to contribute to arts organizations — because this was their hometown."

A good example of what happened, and how it affected individual organizations, comes from Charlotte Symphony Orchestra president and CEO Robert Stickler. "We've had a 60-percent reduction in the amount of funding we receive from the ASC today, compared to what we received in 2009. This year, their assistance to our overall budget will amount to only 9 percent of our revenue, while in 2009, it was 25 percent."

The Symphony had to find other ways to survive, including cutting their budget wherever possible and increasing its own fundraising efforts. And in that, said Stickler, while they've had some success, their budget this year is still not balanced, to the tune of about a $200,000 shortfall, out of a total budget of $9.5 million.

While Stickler confirmed Bush's point that, overall, ticket revenue has held steady, he also said their efforts to increase the category of "earned income" have hit a wall — you can only raise ticket prices so high before your audiences begin to tell you they're not willing to pay that amount. The problem, according to Stickler, is largely a result of the reduction in local public contributions to the arts — tax money, in short. Raleigh's symphony orchestra, for example, "gets $4.5 million from the state, and more from the county, while we get zero from the state, and nothing from the county."

CONSEQUENTLY, in May 2013, the Cultural Life Task Force was organized to assess the situation and recommend solutions. It was made up of an impressive cross-section: members of the business community, artists themselves, staff and board members of the individual organizations and the "umbrella" group, ASC. And they quickly got to the nitty-gritty: "What the general public thinks is a vibrant cultural community around here is something we can't afford under the current funding structure, let alone having the more vibrant arts community everyone is dreaming about," Pat Riley, CLTF's co-chairman, told me several weeks ago. "What we've discovered over this past year-and-a-half of intense work is that in other cities, where there's a system that works, it's because they've developed the necessary public-private partnerships with a dedicated revenue stream and coupled that with a fully-funded endowment, one that removes, once and for all, the year-to-year uncertainty from an organization's balance sheet."

But when the CLTF released its findings in mid-June, that extensive body of detailed work was almost overshadowed by what has now become a major point of contention among political leaders, both locally and at the state level. The Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners voted narrowly to put a referendum on the November ballot to increase the sales tax here by one-quarter of one cent. Eighty percent of that would go toward teacher pay raises, but also to help fund libraries, Central Piedmont Community College, and, a small part (7.5 percent of the whole, or .018th of a cent) would go to local arts groups. That inclusion was seen as general recognition, among the five commissioners who voted for it, at least, that the County needed to restore some of the public funding it had cut in the last decade. That's especially telling, given, as previously mentioned, that the ASC had increased its program offerings as the County had requested, but for which it has not received any revenue to support that in many years. That referendum, at press time, was hanging by a thread, facing action at several levels to kill it.

So the plan, as envisioned by the CLTF, is split into a long- and a short-term strategy. It borrows heavily from the research and site-visits Task Force members conducted to similar cities around the country, cities that have a regional identity and have encountered the same kind of problems the Charlotte region is experiencing now.

Here's how it boils down: Short-term, there's a need to fill that $8 million hole annually through the next few years. The strategy is to raise half of that through charitable contributions — in fact, much of that has already been covered by McColl's announcement of the Thrive donations this week — and the other half from a renewed effort to obtain public funding. That will come through a deliberative process of: asking the City to increase its contributions (the City, over the past decade, has not reduced its funding levels as the County has, but it has also not increased them as the town has grown); asking the County, as stated above, to return to its previous funding practices; asking Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to return to a previous practice of paying for at least part of the cost of programs it currently receives; and to ask the State to adjust how it allocates funds so that is done more equitably throughout the state.

Part Two will be to develop and implement a 10-year plan to raise $125 million, to a total of $300 million, which is seen as the minimum amount required for an endowment that will fund the annual operations of regional arts organizations, a critical step in developing stability, attracting the best managers, and in growing to new heights. What's seen as vital in this, borrowing from the examples of other cities such as Denver, is the development of a dedicated funding source that can be counted on both through the lean years and the good times, eliminating the uncertainty as well as the ordeal of having to go back before the governing authorities, time after time, as the political winds shift.

In cities where this has been done, things like a quarter-cent has been added on to a sales tax, or a hotel-motel tax, with that revenue going expressly to funding for the arts. Similar ideas have been floated here before, or tried to a limited extent, but this is now seen as absolutely essential to removing, once and for all, the year-to-year operating budget uncertainty that's been the norm here.

In addition, there will be a rather drastic change in the strategy regarding the pursuit of private, charitable contributions. Instead of the current practice, whereby most area organizations have ceded a good portion of that responsibility to the ASC, each organization will now be expected to develop its own fundraising process in a much more professional manner, and will be given assistance in developing the necessary tools to do that. Some groups have already moved in that direction; others need more help. And the kinds of stress that board members experience, as evidenced recently by the stories involving The Light Factory and CAST, can't continue to be ignored.

"McColl is adamant that each organization has to develop its own, highly professional fundraising staff," Riley said.

HERE, THEN, IS WHERE the story switched gears, leaving me with a modicum of hope. Our patient on life support may, in fact, be about to undergo that necessary "radical" surgery that will lead to a very bright future. All of the community leaders I've spoken with, no matter their political affiliation or philosophical bent, have (maybe surprisingly) expressed the same general sentiments in our conversations. This region must have a vibrant, and growing, arts and cultural community. They all recognize that public funding must be a part of that mix, especially in the short term while the shortfall is being handled, and while the longer-term strategy is being fully developed and implemented. Those community leaders include county commissioner (and former chairperson) Pat Cotham (Democrat), commissioner Matthew Ridenhour (Republican), City Council member Claire Fallon (Democrat), former Council member and former mayor pro-tem Lynn Wheeler (Republican), and current commissioner and chairman Trevor Fuller (Democrat) ... and many more.

That's a fairly impressive group upon which a campaign can begin to find its footing. (Of course, there's always going to be folks like Bill James and state Sen. Bob Rucho, who generally believe public money should not go to the arts.) The energy and determination of the people I've spoken with these past few weeks is palpable, and infectious. They not only say they believe this can be done; they absolutely believe it must be done. Even among those politicians who define themselves as "small-government, fiscally-conservative" in nature, such as Ridenhour, there is agreement. "Public art is one of the aspects that creates increased quality of life for our community," said Ridenhour, who voted against the sales-tax referendum and worries about things like "community standards" coming into play when public tax money goes to help pay the costs of a program. "And we have to take a good, hard look at this problem and figure out what to do about it."

The perfect example, though, of just how tenuous any public-funding allocation to the arts might be, given the pendulum swings of the year-to-year political process, as opposed to a steady, reliable dedicated revenue source, came to town just last week: The Levine Museum of the New South opened a new show, LGBTQ Perspectives on Equality, which was described in the Charlotte Observer as "a combination of exhibits that tell the history of Charlotte's gay and transgender community ... in the context of the national gay civil rights movement."

But that's still a shift, folks, and it comes largely because the people behind the latest task force seem to have done their work admirably, touching all the bases, resulting in a comprehensive plan that makes sense for a new time. And this week's startling announcement of giving from the corporate community may be just the shot in the arm the patient needs most right now, a demonstration of the kind of commitment that might serve to stiffen the backbone of our political leaders.

This is, then, truly a community-wide effort. And so there's more than a little reason for optimism, for the first time in a while. The biggest unanswered question, now, is directed to you for an answer: Will you tell your political leaders that you support some public funding for the art? And will you ante-up as you're able, with your own contributions?

The doctor's laid out the dilemma of what to do for your sick relative in fairly plain, easy-to-understand, yet difficult, terms — but he's hopeful. And that's the attitude you'd want from a doctor when your loved one is on life support, right?

CL owes an apology to Councilwoman Claire Fallon, whose name we misspelled during the editing process. We have corrected the error.

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