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.

Finally, A Procurement Platform For Non-Profit Arts

Finally, a dream a decade in the making is coming to fruition!   Though I am sure he doesn’t recall it at all, in a post back in 2010 I had suggested that Drew McManus’ Venture Industries develop a platform upon which non-profit arts organizations could solicit competitive bids for goods and services.

In the past week, Drew has announced just such a service. Starting in mid-March he will be rolling out Non-Profit Bids, a site that will connect vendors with non-profits circulating requests for proposals (RFP) to provide goods and services. Right now he is looking for organizations to submit their RFPs and for providers to add themselves to a list of companies & individuals with available goods and services.

When I wrote my original post, I was working for a state university which required everyone to use their online RFP system to solicit goods costing over a certain dollar amount. We would often use it for goods that fell below that threshold because there could be significant price differences for the same goods.  Even if the price differences are relatively small, soliciting bids online saved a lot of staff time that might have been spent calling or emailing around for competitive bids.

Now as a state institution, we had to go with the lowest bidder or submit a very detailed rationale why we didn’t. You wouldn’t necessarily be tied to accepting the lowest bidder with Non-Profit Bids

On the other hand, we had the buying power of a national consortium of universities behind us to make sure vendors delivered on their promises.

Regardless of how strictly you must adhere to purchasing guidelines, my advice on any RFP you submit is to be as detailed as possible. Do not assume features that are important to you will be included just because the private consumer version with which you are familiar has that feature. If something is mandatory, state that. If there is flexibility or the example you are using is just for general reference, state that as well.

My hope is that Non-Profit bids will really catch on and become perceived as worthwhile to an increasing number of organizations and vendors. Since I wrote the entry 10 years ago, it has become increasingly possible for people to offer services at significantly greater distances so the potential to secure high quality services suitable to your organization and its budget is so much greater.

Escapism Over Escape

Historically, theater fires have been among some of the worst in terms of loss of life and property damage. Improvements in firefighting equipment and building design and construction have fortunately made most of those tragic tales infrequent, relative to the situation in the late 19th and early 20th century. An article on New York City theatre fires in Lapham’s Quarterly during this time period illustrates what significantly increased the hazard and opportunity for loss of life were gross misrepresentations of the safety of theaters coupled with a lack of effort to improve the conditions.

To combat the growing reputation of theaters as death traps, New York City impresarios began to advertise their venues by stressing just how safe they were—without changing the actual structures. In 1901 the top of the Broadway Theater’s playbills, above the production information, read “Safest theater in the world—34 exits.” That same year, the Knickerbocker’s playbills stated that it was “Absolutely Fireproof.” By 1904 the Majestic was billing itself as “New York’s finest—the world’s safest theater—positively fireproof—42 exits,” and by 1906 the Colonial was claiming it was “absolutely fireproof—this theater has the lowest insurance rate issued to any theater in the world.”

…According to Gerhard’s report, as of 1899 New York’s Fifth Avenue Theater could hold 1,400 people but be emptied in 2.5 minutes, while the Abbey Theater could hold 1,450 people and be emptied in 1.5 minutes. The enormous Madison Square Garden, which could hold 17,000 people, apparently required only 4.5 minutes for complete evacuation.

These hypothetically efficient evacuations were impossible to execute, however. Theaters and movie theaters often were illegally packed to standing-room-only capacity, with additional bodies blocking potential routes of egress. Furthermore, Gerhard found that the doors were locked in many of the buildings, and many of the exits first wound through basements or alleyways. Some exits even led to wooden staircases. Families and young children were frequently given permission to be seated in the highest galleries, which made their top-priority exits more difficult.

What is interesting is reading about how much the theater owners and managers resisted safety procedures fearing the optics of making people aware of fire exits would make people consider other diversions. A good number of the bad choices were preserved in the name of maintaining the escapist environment of the theater.

Among the reforms that had been suggested were having firemen walk out on stage at the start of the evening holding placards directing people’s attention to the nearest exits. It was pretty much exactly what flight attendants do on a plane today. When it was brought up in a meeting of theater managers, there was a great deal of push back out of fear of panicking audience members or souring the experience by suggesting the theater was unsafe. According to the article, actors would see a fire but would continue performing in order to maintain the facade they had constructed. In at least one case, opening a door caused a cross draft sending the fire the actors were observing flaring into the seating area.

It is something to think about as live performances try to compete with digital forms of entertainment. What lengths are people willing to go in order to provide the immersive experience they believe is required. What corners will be cut? I have already seen hints of this where occasionally contracts request/require no pre-show announcements or stipulate they occur so early only half the audience sees them. I don’t imagine any of this would expose current audiences to the dangers looming silently over 19th & early 20th century audiences, but the lessons of those times bear consideration.

We Can Never Beat Overhead By Ourselves, It’s Time To Merge!

When I saw a story on Non-Profit Quarterly about four Kalamazoo, MI non-profits entering a shared-services partnership, I immediately assumed it was confined to back office functions as I had written about before. However, that isn’t entirely the case. Moreover, the impetus for their partnership isn’t so much driven by a desire to save money as it is by the fact that funding entities won’t allow grants and donations to be used for administrative overhead.

The four non-profits, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kalamazoo, Prevention Works, Urban Alliance and Big Brothers Big Sisters, didn’t form the shared entity, Hub ONE, just to handle their back office functions, Hub ONE staff will help people navigate the services offered by each of these groups. “With each organization working to combat an aspect of generational poverty, the partnership appears to be a natural fit.”

A three year, $8.3 million grant from the Stryker Johnston Foundation will largely support developing the infrastructure of this new shared services entity. Some of the money will also go toward staff development and retention–something that is actually the long term goal of the shared services model.

…Gail Pico notes that overhead caps stifle social progress by restricting funding for use in effective management (e.g. professional development, evaluation, and strategic planning), keeps direct-service employees in poverty, and discourages innovation by not permitting organizations to take risks in trying new methods.

Each member of Hub ONE has been negatively impacted in some way by overhead myths. For instance, many of their employees are eligible for the programs they offer. Consequently, the group asserts that much of their time is spent trying to hire and retain employees who are driven to leave the sector for better pay. Sielatycki hopes the new collaborative will free resources for member nonprofits to pay employees more competitive wages, thereby helping reduce turnover and its associated retraining and onboarding costs.

The title of this post is a reference to the merging robot motifs of cartoons like Voltron

Of course, what can be a threat to the folks in Kalamazoo and other places is when one organization prioritizes themselves over the whole. (offered more for entertainment than caveat)

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