On Judith A. Dobrzynski and When Arts Leaders Act Like Lemmings

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With props to the great Gary Larson.

We have real respect for Judith H. Dobrzynski, who writes the Real Clear Arts blog at ArtsJournal.com. Of the 50 or so blogs at that site, some are on the limp side, some are possibly dormant, some tend to be too self-promoting or too self-serving and some are simply bat-shit crazy. But Dobrzynski’s blog is fresh and wise and original, nicely sourced, and always very finger-on-the-pulse-of-the-zeigeist-y.

If you don’t read her blog, or you don’t read it very often, we encourage you to start. If you blog yourself, link to it. She does great work.

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This week, Dobrzynski inadvertently exposed the fact that our arts leaders and thinkers tend to latch onto slick-sounding solutions to our epic, complex and ever-enduring challenges, to tout magic-bullet solutions like foolproof elixirs.

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Dobrzynski’s column was about the rejection, by the citizens of Ann Arbor, MI, of the imposition of a property tax millage that would benefit a public art program, one whose current funding source is arguably more bureaucratic in nature. And it was about why the people of Ann Arbor rejected it.

Dobrzynski’s lede read:

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In August, when the Detroit Institute of Arts won support in its three surrounding counties for a tiny property tax – called a millage – to support its operations for 10 years, a lot of people hailed it as the start of a new funding model for the arts.

The people in Ann Arbor felt the DIA situation was extremely unique and that the millage idea did not seem so useful for their city. And Dobrzynski not only admits that she agreed with the people’s decision but she briefly explained her viewpoint and it’s a valid one.

To be sure, there are dozens of examples of cultural tax districts in the country; we like two sources of discussion of them, one from the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies here, and a rather old one from 1998 from Americans for the Arts here, but there are plenty of others, too. And there has been, and will continue to be, plenty of debate as to whether cultural tax districts are the most effective means of supporting culture through public funds, and much of that debate will continue to be fueled by the right, which generally believes that the government has no place in the funding of culture in the first place, regardless of how those dollars are acquired.

The bottom line is that the concept itself is anything but new. Perhaps the DIA situation felt new to proponents in Ann Arbor because the matter there was obviously so dire, but ultimately the concept itself is extremely well known and there is plenty of analysis and evidence of the economic benefits of such districts if one takes the time to read a little bit about them. They can be structured in myriad ways; the most famous and successful such district is the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District in Denver, which has existed since 1989 and is subject to voter approval every few years. More than $628 million dollars has been distributed to date, so one can immediately grasp why the idea would turn cash-starved cultural leaders elsewhere in the country into tax-district evangelists and lemmings.

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Unfortunately, what works or makes sense in Denver or dozens of other areas of the country need not work or make sense in Ann Arbor, and it is folly to assume that it will. Our problem, in other words, is that our arts leaders tend repeatedly to assume that solutions to our problems are one-size-fits-all when, in fact, they are never one-size-fits-all. It’s a peculiarly American trait, this idea that what’s good for the goose is always good for every other phylum and species within a 3,000-mile radius.

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Consider the growing evangelizing of dynamic ticket pricing, for instance. No one seriously questions whether dynamic pricing is a good idea, but right now, based on our sense of the field and anecdotal evidence, more people think it’s a good idea for everyone — every dance performance, every Broadway show, every sporting event, every symphony concert. But nothing, short of the Ten Commandments, is a good idea for absolutely everybody. From proposing new cultural tax districts to advocating for more dynamic pricing to thinking that the most impactful arts advocacy can be achieved through letter-writing efforts to arts leaders begging for huge, unsustainable increases to the National Endowment for the Arts, we have all got to stop believing in magic-bullet theories. Maybe a cultural district tax in Ann Arbor is a good idea. Maybe not. Maybe the citizens there are ready for it. Maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re fully educated as to what a millage means or maybe they weren’t fully brought on board. Coming on the heels of the DIA matter, what is clear is that knee-jerk reactions to success in one quarter, over there somewhere, is not the same thing as applying a rigorous study standard to determine whether that success, in that quarter over there, is really the right thing for this quarter, over here. We may be doing a little reading-between-the-lines, but we think the last lines of Dobrzynski’s post suggest that such rigor was lacking in fair Ann Arbor:

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I can’t say I’m happy about any of this – except that it reinstates a little reality in the discussions about arts funding. Personally, I don’t think the public will support a direct tax for the arts in anything but unusual circumstances.

The public does support direct taxes for the arts all the time. But it is when the time is right, when the situation is right, when political support for it has been carefully and intelligently cultivated, when it makes rational sense. Not because everyone else is doing it. Magic bullets are the crack-cocaine of the arts. Anyone up for a 12-step?