A complicated tax proposal — that arts and culture advocates say has been 11 years in the making — is the subject of fierce debate among arts leaders and Metropolitan King County Council members.
“I was born in Harlem,” Seattle Theatre Group board member George Northcroft said at an unusually emotional and earnest Metropolitan King County Council meeting last week about — of all things — a $67 million-a-year tax proposal to fund arts, culture and science nonprofits.
He was one of about 100 people who showed up to give public testimony in support of Access for All, a complicated initiative that had, a day earlier, been declared dead.
“I’m a product of the arts,” Northcroft continued, “because, when I was a little tot, I was part of a group called Ruth Williams Dance, in Harlem.” That, he explained, was a foundational experience in his life.
The seven council members on the Budget and Finance Committee looked a little ruffled. The day before, Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who represents a low-income, high-diversity district in South King County, announced he planned to take the tax initiative off the committee’s agenda.
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Upthegrove explained that he opposed even giving the public a chance to vote on the proposed 0.1 percent boost to the sales tax, saying Washington already has one of the most regressive tax systems in the nation and that this tax would hurt working-class people.
Just a few minutes before Northcroft spoke, Upthegrove had pulled the measure from consideration, which was followed by a lot of testimony showing that when it comes to Access for All, Seattle’s arts community is a divided house. Of course, arts-and-culture administrators welcome more money to expand their programming and bring it to more people. But they’re ambivalent about funding that through a regressive tax that will largely go into the coffers of about two dozen of the largest, best-funded arts, science and culture nonprofits in the Seattle area.
Washington state doesn’t have an income tax and King County has a cap on property tax, making arts-access funding in the county subject to either the whims of philanthropists or some kind of sales tax.
“Everybody wants more money for the arts,” said Holly Arsenault, former leader of TeenTix and current director of engagement at the University of Washington School of Drama.
“I think what’s happening is that the debate over how the funding is structured is exposing very deep class divides within the arts community which, like all class divides in this country, track closely with deep racial and geographic inequities,” she said. “But also, whatever our internal divides might be within the arts community, no one wants to expose our internal struggles to a world where there are people who don’t think art should be funded at all, right?”
Even Upthegrove, who had the power to pull the initiative as chair of the council’s Finance Committee, has doubts. The full council, with a majority vote, could still go over his head and revive the measure for the August primary ballot.
“This is really hard for me,” Upthegrove said later that day. “My husband and I have theater subscriptions, my mother is on a historical society. I want this to work, but I’m not a fan of sales tax — it hurts low-income people the most … I’d like to see direct investment in arts and culture organizations outside of Seattle. I don’t have constituents clamoring for this thing: ‘Dave, you know what would solve our poverty and inequality? We’d like some buses to take us up to the opera.’ ”
Years in the making
Here’s Access for All in a nutshell: For more than a decade, regional arts leaders such as Ben Moore (the retired, longtime executive director of Seattle Repertory Theatre) have been hammering out an initiative that would give counties across the state the authority to tax themselves to fund arts, science and humanities organizations, so communities could decide for themselves how much they want to invest in cultural institutions.
That bill was passed in Olympia in 2015, after several legislative cycles. The 0.1 percent tax (or 1 penny per $10 spent) is expected to generate roughly $67.4 million a year in King County. But its critics see problems: While 10 percent of those funds would go directly to arts-education programs, the remaining 70 percent would go to roughly 30 of King County’s largest arts, culture and science organizations (Seattle Theatre Group, Pacific Science Center, the Woodland Park Zoo, and others). The rest would be sprinkled around to 300-plus smaller organizations in the county.
The large-tier organizations would have to spend 20 percent of the funding they receive on public-school access and 30 percent on reaching out to lower-income and middle-access families, said Access for All campaign manager Jack Sorensen.
“This didn’t fall out of the sky,” he said. “Folks have been working on this for a long time.”
Some Access for All advocates, such as retired ACT Theatre managing director Susan Trapnell, argue that the structure of the funding makes some sense: The biggest organizations already have the infrastructure and momentum to serve all corners of the county.
“Is this a perfect bill?” she asked. “No. But is this a case of letting the good become the enemy of the perfect?”
As for the smaller organizations, Manuel Cawaling (managing director for Youth Theatre Northwest, which has less than $170,000 in assets per its 2015 tax forms), said the money would be “a huge windfall … we can only afford to serve six schools a year with our ‘Show to Go’ program, and we turn down schools every year.” If the initiative passes, he said, his theater’s program of producing shows with students in schools that don’t have drama programs would be “dramatically expanded.”
Pamala Mijatov, former artistic director of Annex Theatre, said: “We should be jumping on opportunities to funnel more money” to smaller arts organizations “instead of cutting them off because Pacific Science Center and Seattle Rep are getting ‘too much’ … 5 percent of nothing is nothing.”
Cawaling, who is also on the Access for All board, said its members have spent the past few months furiously writing amendments to address the concerns of Upthegrove — and others — about economic and geographical equity. They’ve added language about how the 30-plus big organizations getting the lion’s share of the money would be required to direct roughly half their funds toward equity-based programs — financial, ethnic and geographical.
They’re still at it, hoping the council will vote to bring the initiative back to life.
“I understand Upthegrove’s concerns,” Cawaling said. “But this is a huge return on investment.”
Cawaling said Access for All estimates the measure could raise half a billion over seven years, yet cost around $30 per household for a family of four in the median tax bracket. “This money could also help incubate new arts organizations — if people are moving out of Seattle to Black Diamond, should they not have a theater? Should they not have a music festival?”
“We’re talking about $67.4 million a year,” Cawaling said, and ticked off various arts-and-humanities budget crises around the state and the country: proposed cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, plus Washington state’s chronic education-funding problems. “We need this now.”
At the end of the day, Upthegrove said, everybody involved wants the best for King County — the disagreement is how to get there. “Under this proposal, $379,000 goes to my district and the zoo gets $4.75 million a year … Coming into our community in vans and leaving — that’s different than investing in our communities. I’d like to see the development of arts and cultural organizations outside of Seattle.”
But Washington’s restrictions on taxation, Upthegrove concluded, are thorny. This issue, he said, “is touchy for everyone.”