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OR: Building a Case as Portland Prepares to Vote on Arts Funding

Jeff Hawthorne

The Arts & Economic Prosperity IV report comes at an interesting time for Portland as we prepare to launch a campaign for a transformational arts funding measure that’s headed for the November ballot.

If approved by voters in November, a new income tax capped at $35 per person will raise $12 million per year to support arts organizations and arts education in the City of Portland. Specifically, the measure would restore 65 arts specialists in elementary schools and allow our local arts agency to provide general operating support for about 50 leading arts organizations at a rate of at least five percent of their operating budgets. (Our largest organizations currently receive about one percent of their budgets from local public support).

The measure would also help our Regional Arts & Culture Council set up a fund to increase access to arts and culture, specifically within communities of color and underserved neighborhoods.

The Creative Advocacy Network (CAN) is leading this initiative, and even the most recent polls have been strong, earning 75 percent approval of the actual ballot language among likely voters; we are cautiously optimistic about our chances for success.

However, inexplicably, our local newspaper recently published an appallingly ignorant editorial that dismisses the notion of public funding for the arts, and value of arts education in particular. We’re not quite sure what rock they’ve been living under, but we know they don’t represent the opinion of the vast majority of Portland residents. The letter writing campaign to enlighten them has begun! (Thank you, Bob Lynch, for your letter.)

We’ve also done polling to make sure we understand which messages are most likely to resonate with the voters, and we found that economic impact was not very high on the list. The fact that our local arts organizations constitute a $253 million industry, supporting 8,529 full-time equivalent jobs and generating $21 million in state and local government revenue was deemed “persuasive” by slightly less than half of the likely voters we surveyed.

These voters responded more enthusiastically to the idea that arts education is critical to our children’s education, and they have a keen understanding that arts and culture experiences make our classrooms and communities stronger. Understandably, we’ll be leading the campaign with these kinds of arts education messages.

Still, we are finding the results of AEP IV to be a useful arrow in our quiver. The economic argument has proven helpful for elected leaders in particular, who are looking for ways to defend arts-related investments among constituents who complain that jobs should be the priority.

This report helps us show that investing in arts organizations helps achieve economic prosperity—and contributes significant sums to local government coffers that help pay for other important public services. We used the AEP IV top-line economic impact statistics just a couple weeks ago when we asked Portland City Council to refer the CAN arts funding proposal to the ballot.

We made the front page, but…

The economic impact story has also garnered significant interest from the press—local newspapers, blogs, and broadcast media are working to inform the public conversation about the pros and cons of our ballot measure proposal. Even though they pooh-poohed our ballot proposal, The Oregonian did put the AEP IV findings on their front cover several weeks ago.

We’re also working with some of the reporters in our area to suss out the human interest angle of this story—it’s not just statistics, it’s absolutely about the carpenters, the seamstresses, the retail clerks, the restaurateurs, the parking attendants, and thousands of other people whose jobs depend on a robust schedule of arts and culture events. Fortunately, the Oregonian article included some of those anecdotes as well.

Data like this, and stories like these, help reinforce how arts and culture add measurable value to our community in many ways.

We’ll keep you posted on how our campaign for dedicated funding goes!

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