Portland, OR Art Tax Update

Back in 2012, Portland, OR approved a $35 tax to supports arts education and arts organizations around the city. In 2017 I wrote a post about how overhead was starting to cut into the amount of money available to distribute to programs. Part of that overhead was attributable to the fact people weren’t paying the tax and so funds had to be diverted toward enforcement.  Last week, via Artsjournal, is another article mentioning that the tax hasn’t proven to be the boon supporters hoped it would be. For one, people still are resistant to paying it.

The art museum, like the rest of the big five, never received the targeted 5 percent support.

That’s in part because the tax has never brought in the $12 million a year voters were told to expect. (Revenues were $9.8 million the first year and peaked at $11.46 million in 2016.)

Portlanders have been reluctant to pay it. Although the city’s population has risen nearly 12 percent since November 2012 and tax receipts should have increased proportionally, figures show revenues still never reached levels proponents forecasted.

A point I want to clarify. The article makes it sound like arts funding for schools has diverted money that was intended for non-profit arts organizations. However, from my earlier posts, it appears the law that was passed intended to fund the schools first and then the non-profits would receive funding. In fact, this recent article says when the measure was passed in 2012, funding the schools was politically more attractive to voters than funding non-profits. While the arts organizations had been pushing the art tax idea for a long time prior to the vote, when the time came, the resolution being voted upon was written to fund the school first.

The other thing the article notes is that between the collection effects and the art tax name, there are public relations and perception issues which have proven problematic.

While arts leaders all favor more Portlanders paying the tax, some worry the city’s zeal to collect is counterproductive. “You get pinged with a letter, you get pinged with a postcard, you get an email saying time to pay the arts tax,” says Portland Center Stage’s Fuhrman. “That’s where I think the bad PR comes in.”

Andrew Proctor, executive director of Literary Arts, which produces the Portland Book Festival, says the public’s ill feeling has a cost. “Even the name ‘arts tax’ sounds punitive,” he says, “and it misleads citizens that in paying the tax they have supported arts institutions. They haven’t. It can damage our fundraising efforts and can polarize the conversation.”

[…]

Hawthorne, the former RACC official, says he fears the public may believe the tax works. “Ten to 12 million is a lot of money,” Hawthorne says. “People may perceive the arts have had their influx and now it’s time to focus on more pressing needs.”

The whole article provides a lesson for those considering advocating for an arts tax of some sort. The basic idea isn’t bad, but the way it is structured and executed needs to be thought out. The example of Portland points to things people want to avoid. The name; the way in which it is collected, structured and discussed; all call negative attention to it.

It is worth reading the whole article because it also mentions the Regional Arts and Cultural Council’s (RACC) initiative to provide more equitable funding for smaller arts organizations. Back in 2012, RACC was starting to require more diversity on the boards, staff and eventually audiences of Portland’s arts organizations. In January, I had written about how the Arts Council of England was instituting similar requirements, forgetting that Portland had been working toward that goal for nearly a decade now.

Last year, RACC shifted their funding model to better align with this philosophy which includes size and economic diversity among its criteria. As a result, the larger organizations in town receive less of the art tax money than they once did.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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