Should the city dedicate a portion of local property taxes to support local arts?
This is the question facing the City Council as arts activists showed up en masse on Wednesday to lobby the city for a share of Gold Coast development revenue.
Wearing red t-shirts bearing a percentage sign as their logo, Christine Goodman, former director of Art House Productions, led an army of artists into City Hall in what amounted to a pro-arts rally, seeking to get their piece of the economic pie.
Government funding of the arts, while common in Europe, is controversial in the United States, partly because art is often more political here and partly because critics of subsidies believe the funds are needed for other bread-and-butter issues such as the schools, redevelopment of infrastructure, and a number of issues involving the poor, crime, and housing.
The artists are proposing a surcharge on restaurant bills of about half a percent and a 1 percent surcharge on new development, which is burgeoning in the city.
These amounts, according to Goodman, would be a dedicated subsidy for the arts and could also include a possible hotel tax.
“I am committed to ensuring the survival of arts and culture in Jersey City,” she said, noting that New York City, Newark, and Morristown have recognized the arts as an essential component of a healthy city as well as an economic driver by dedicating support for the arts.
“So too, I feel it is Jersey City’s time to support the arts,” she said.
Arguments against government funded arts vary, from the belief that they divert funds necessary for other uses such as libraries and schools, to the belief that such funding artificially maintains arts endeavors that would not survive on their own merit in the marketplace.
Also, opponents question where government draws the line. If they fund arts, can they deny other groups equal access to revenue.
Although Goodman and others point to successful government funded programs such as those in Norfolk, Va., and its Norwich Festival as examples of other successful arts communities Jersey City ought to emulate, a commentator for Forbes, the business magazine, claimed that the quality of art produced at the 2016 festival was mixed at best, claiming much of it would not survive without the government handout.
The Forbes commentary went on to say that these programs in Norfolk and elsewhere create “a culture of dependency,” where companies are more concerned with salaries than with art. This also puts art at risk of potential self censorship when dealing with controversial subjects that may not agree with the political beliefs of officials doing the funding.
Yvonne Balcer, a well-established conservative commentator in Jersey City, said she opposed government support.
“I remember when the Jersey City Museum had a so-called famous artist, the one who put the crucifix in urine at the museum,” she said. “That art was done in Brooklyn. The work the artist presented was created from his bodily waste in the Jersey City Museum. What a disgrace. My tax dollars should not be use as a vehicle to attack religion or display someone’s mental illness.”
Many more ways today to raise funds than in the past
Critics of government funding also point out that such groups have other ways of raising funds that include grants from large arts organizations and the ever shrinking revenues of the National Endowment of the Arts.
More importantly, they note arts groups now have resources never before available to them such as Go Fund Me and Crowd-sourcing that allows worthy projects to seek funding based on their merits, not on automatic funding through taxes.
Critics have also said that government funding rarely improves the operations of transit systems and mortgage programs.
An analysis published in the arts-friendly Huffington Post said government funding is not the best way to fund the arts, although it also suggested the U.S. should continue and expand expenditures to the National Endowment of Arts.
Corporate support, according to this report, is much more viable and successful than the total government funded programs in Europe. While Germany, for instance, spends significantly more for arts, it does not provide tax-write offs for companies that encourage private donations. So a tax on developments in Jersey City might be counterproductive in that it would discourage these same developers from actually investing in local arts.
Money could be distributed through the arts council
Council member Candice Osborne, who has worked with the arts community to establish a Jersey City Arts Council, said the funding would go through the council, and the city would step back from this.
Although originally proposed nearly four years ago by Osborne, the arts board sprang up earlier this year, apparently in preparation for this tax play.
Although the arts council is currently made up of local artists, city officials say this will change if the ordinance passes allowing for dedicated taxes. No one associated with Jersey City arts groups will be allowed to sit on the board, although people with knowledge of the arts will be among the members, along with people from the business community, city government, and possibly former city officials.
The board will establish criteria for distributing the funds and will likely operate in a similar fashion to the county’s Open Space Trust Fund or the county’s Cultural Affairs office, which redistributes grants from government and non-profit sources.
Having an independent arts board will help protect the city from suffering backlash for any controversial art, yet the makeup of the board will allow the city to retain a role as a fiscal watchdog over how the money is allocated.
The Arts Council differs significantly from other bodies such as the Jersey City Park Coalition.
The parks group is an advisory board that makes recommendations to the city for what work they believe needs to be done on property owned and maintained by the city. The city oversees all finances and the work.
A dedicated arts tax filtered through the Arts Council would mean that a non-public body might oversee the distribution of revenue obtained through taxes.
While grants and other revenue for arts require arts organization to keep their administrative costs to a low percentage of the grant, there appears to be no such limit if the tax and the funding would be administered at the discretion of the Arts Council.
Based on the reporting nonprofits must make to the federal government, administrative costs for the three most prominent arts organization in Jersey City, however, do not appear unreasonable. The executive director for Art House makes about $27,000 as of 2015; for the Nimbus Dance Company, $31,000, and for the Kennedy Dancers, $24,000.
Although speakers from scores of arts groups pleaded their case for revenues, these three arts organizations have seen ever increasing revenues over the last few years.
Art House has seen an increase of revenue from less than $50,000 in 2004 to just under $200,000 in 2015 (the last available information), while Kennedy Dancers revenues was slightly under $140,000 for the same year (with assets of about $400,000), while Nimbus in 2015 received about $407,000 in grants and another $473,952 in ticket and other revenue.
Other artists and arts organizations, however, are legitimately struggling for both public attention and finances.
Many of those involved in these programs also work regular jobs. Many do not get paid for their art but offer volunteer services or perform arts teaching duties in local schools.
“Artists are hard working people in this city too, a city that has gotten rich off of the idea of this being an artistic city, when in reality there is no support for the arts from the city, from corporations, from foundations,” Goodman said. “This is not for lack of decades of trying to get those investments. I am a taxpayer. And I believe that in order to change this deep-rooted issue of arts and artists being driven out of this city, that change starts at the top.”
In fact, the city and local special improvement districts often provide space for public display. Local businesses are prominent sponsors in the Jersey City Artists Tour, and several developers such as Silverman and Panapinto have been very significant supporters of local arts.
Downside to government support of the arts
An analysis done by the conservative Adam Smith Institute said government support for the arts is often perceived as government approval for its content, and will often have an effect on what art is eventually produced.
This funding is also subject to political whim, and could dry up during tough economic times. The report said that arts organizations might actually see less during a downturn when they need the money most.
In hard times, local government can cut off the money, similar to the expected cuts in school aid being contemplated by the state government.
Although Goodman cited statistics showing that every dollar donated by NEA leads to $9 in additional revenue from corporate and individual donors, however, according to Forbes, NEA dollars frequently require matching funds from state and local governments. This means taxpayers are footing the bill on multiple layers and less from private sector.
Goodman claimed that development dollars are not coming from taxpayers. However, the added fee could limit other givebacks to city such as the $2 million donation to Loews Theater the city required from KRE for the Journal Squared project.
Representatives from most of arts organizations appealed to the council to move ahead with their proposal citing work they have done in the community and the schools.
“Arts improve academic performance. Students with an education rich in the arts have higher GPAs and standardized test scores, and lower drop-out rates – benefits reaped by students regardless of socio-economic status. Students with four years of arts or music in high school average 100 points better on their SAT scores than students with just one-half year of arts or music,” Goodman said.
Art is a business
While Goodman also said arts and culture improve the economy, the Forbes account claims that job growth through industry and other business ventures is just if not more viable.
Jersey City is poised to become a capital of startup technology companies, and the city has already invested in the development of a new technological campus.
The city has also signaled some support for the arts already, requiring development of a new black box theater as well as establishing arts districts in Journal Square and in Jersey City Heights.
Goodman and others claim arts are good for local merchants, with events in venues often generating revenue for restaurants and other venues, bringing in people and money from outside the local community. But this is also true of the two dozen culture affairs programs the city already supports throughout the year.
“Arts mean business,” Goodman said. “The creative industries are arts businesses that range from nonprofit museums, symphonies, and theaters to for-profit film, architecture, and design companies,” she said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com