Compared with everything that’s happened with Portland-area schools, arts groups say they don’t have much to show for their work helping to pass the Arts Education and Access Fund.
Now that the first year’s school money has been spent, and the city has covered its collection costs, only $150,000 made it into the hands of groups that put on events and exhibitions in the community: Portland Opera, Northwest Children’s Theater, Bodyvox Dance, Wordstock, and about forty other groups.
Stephen Marc Beaudoin is with PHAME Academy, an arts group that helps people with developmental disabilities participate in music, theater, songwriting, visual arts, and more. When the tax proposal was on the ballot, his staff and board were passing out flyers, standing on street corners, waving signs at cars.
“There’s no question the whole arts tax from conception has been exciting, unpredictable, and there have been a litany of broken promises and frustrations,” Beaudoin says.
PHAME Academy got about $900. Advocates hoped arts tax revenue could fortify 5 percent of arts groups’ budgets. Even groups that got the biggest payments have only received a fraction of one percent of their budgets.
Eloise Damrosch heads the Regional Arts and Culture Council for metro Portland. RACC didn’t design the arts tax, but it’s now responsible for paying out the revenue.
When a Citizen Oversight Committee met this week, she explained why the tax was such a huge priority in arts circles.
“The key thing to remember is it’s money they can count on for general operating support. As anyone who works with arts organizations knows, those are hardest dollars to get out of any other source,” Damrosch said.
“Operating support” pays for staff salaries, insurance, supplies, electric bills. But it was seen as a risky appeal when the tax was designed.
The tax was originally conceived to help arts groups — not schools. But the campaign conducted several polls, and concluded arts education was essential to getting voters on board.
Arts leaders say there’s no question the gains for schools mean great things down the line, as a generation comes of age with a grounding in music, visual arts, and theater. But the bottom line is $4 million in estimated revenue did not pan out.
Even people who were very close to the campaign aren’t happy.
Chris Coleman is the artistic director at Portland Center Stage. He focuses criticism on the city’s inability to collect.
“Yes it’s complicated, yes it’s a type of tax the city has not collected before. But you had two years to get your act together,” Coleman said.
Coleman met with Mayor Charlie Hales and staff last week to talk about whether the city can wring more cash out of last year’s collections. He says it was constructive.
He said, “I think he understands the urgency. The proof will be in the action. Can they get the Revenue Bureau to act in a timely manner, or come up with alternative plan?”
Coleman wouldn’t say what options were discussed, but he expects to hear back from the city in a week or so.
Mayor Charlie Hales has said he’s supportive of the arts tax goals, but wants to see if a flawed mechanism can be brought into order before making changes.