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Opinion: What the Art Tax Means To Columbus’ Black Art Scene

Scott Woods Scott Woods Opinion: What the Art Tax Means To Columbus’ Black Art Scene
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Speaking on the proposed 7 percent User Fee tax — or as I like to call it to keep things honest, the “Art Tax” — presented by the Greater Columbus Arts Council (GCAC), I want to focus briefly on an angle that hasn‘t come up in any of the discussions I’ve seen so far: how such a tax affects the burgeoning black arts scene.

First, black artists have little investment in what GCAC does. Black artists don’t apply for grants in great numbers, GCAC doesn’t do the level of outreach needed to change that, and what contact black arts communities do have comes through a handful of people.

This isn’t a slam on GCAC or the artists; it’s a statement of reality that stems primarily from a lack of awareness. More effort has always needed to be expended on both sides of this divide. That said, that’s the math as it stands. If the tax went through tomorrow, black artists would continue to be a fraction of the recipients of this funding.

Without changes to GCAC’s core services — specifically better and more consistent community outreach — this divide will persist, regardless of how much money they have. This could change with more funding but GCAC doesn’t know how the money would be spent at this point.

In short: black artists don’t derive much direct benefit from increased grant funding now, and won’t without more awareness of GCAC services and outreach by GCAC.

This is frustrating because of the high degree of marketing that arts organizations and developers use black artists in. If you look at the billboards, bus stops, murals and literature of GCAC and Art Makes Columbus, you’d think black artists get half the grant money in this town. This isn’t even close to the reality, and I say that as someone who received great funding and professional campaigning from GCAC last year.

Black artists are frequently used to sell the Columbus experience as a lifestyle, but support for that level of culture is not commensurate. Again: this isn’t a shot at GCAC. It’s just math. They do a lot more in this regard than perhaps any mainstream organization in the city, but the math is the math.

Diversity can’t stop at the pamphlet. This is more of an observation than a direct side effect of the tax or future funding, but since black artists came up multiple times in the public meetings as examples of the good work GCAC does, some context is in order.

If such proclamations were just about celebrating what we do as artists, that’d be one thing. But it’s primarily part of a larger campaign to sell the city to potential residents on behalf of development that, frankly, pushes us out of our neighborhoods and ignores our pleas for social justice at nearly every turn.

As branding goes, black arts isn’t a bad investment. We come pretty cheap as cultural indicators go.

Another issue is the trickle-down theory of how improved general arts funding will benefit everyone. The cultural investment aspect of the 7 percent tax is being sold as if it will trickle down throughout the larger Columbus community.

Problem: black artists and audiences rarely use or benefit from such cultural offerings. Black people like classical music just fine, but let’s be clear: whatever culture Columbus has managed to develop overall is overwhelmingly white-owned, white-produced, and white-facing. For a city that’s 57 percent white, its cultural offerings consist of their interests, image, and ownership 90 percent of the time.

Let’s talk business.

Places like Ace of Cups and Bourbon Street will be asked to pay the 7 percent tax but will never be eligible to receive the benefits of GCAC. They can’t apply for grants. They’re not nonprofits or artists. They’re businesses. They’re venues. (Just like Nationwide Arena, but whatever.)

So their response is (roughly and justifiably), “Why should I pay for something I can’t use?” GCAC’s response to this is essentially, “a rising tide lifts all boats,” or that giving more money to anchor institutions like the symphony and COSI and BalletMet and, begrudgingly, Nationwide Arena, improves the cultural stock of the city at large and makes us more appealing in general to conventions and tourism (which also increases the bed tax, which is where GCAC primarily gets its funding now).

Problem: this stuff doesn’t trickle down to black artists or audiences very much, who, it should be noted, are people first, and who have to find ways to live here without being gentrified, abused by police, and neglected by entrenched systems of power.

The proposal asks that we, too, pay 7 percent more on what little culture we can access to better sell a city to people who don’t want us living here. The city gets our 7 percent to become a potentially better city, but we won’t be around to see it because we already are losing the ability to afford living here.

Further complicating matters, there are only a handful of black-owned venues that offer events that might fall under the ticketed rubric (whatever that is. Again, no one has a clear answer on this). We won’t contribute mightily to the tax through ticketed events or workshops or whatever directly (arena events and movies, maybe, depending on the show, but otherwise, not so much).

So, whatever concerns and values we have about the tax as a community will likely be wedged down the priority list. Black venues are, by and large, not the kind of ventures that fall under the reward matrix of GCAC, or provide programming that might. Or they aren’t aware that they might provide programming that does, and that there are ways to get that funded. Or they’d rather spend what time and energy they have on staying afloat, not fighting for funding that ultimately won’t keep them afloat anyway.

The bottom line is that this initiative isn’t likely to create more black non-profits aimed at the arts. It’s easier not to create black-owned 501(c)(3)s based on what we traditionally get from such funding.

Finally, this proposal isn’t designed to gather the honest opinions of the affected black artists and organizations. Local black arts largely exist in survival mode, so most of us can’t afford to be seen as ungrateful or hard to work with. In a pragmatic sense, I should have kept my mouth shut. But I have an arts organization whose programming I might have to start applying a surcharge to (or take out of my end). It is a venture that will constantly need to find ways to stay funded to keep providing art and building culture.

I have a venue being built and I pay the artists I work with, even when my events don’t charge. I do that with three key streams of income: tickets (which would be affected by this), grants (which would be affected by this) and donations. It would be wrong for me not to say something.

In some ways, I am uniquely positioned to do so. The question shouldn’t be, “why is Scott saying this?” but, “Why aren’t more artists — of ANY background — saying anything?” The answer is because we can’t afford to jeopardize the relationships we have, or the largesse under which we may benefit on occasion.

GCAC is an organization that, in my experience, tries to do right by the arts here. It has always needed more money than it has to do that job in a way that its critics probably think they should. A tax like this would give them the resources to address some of the voids and missed opportunities I lay out above if they choose.

But the ugly part of this that would be true whether Nationwide was attached or not is that, at the end of the day this town doesn’t want to pay for the arts through a tax. It should, but it doesn’t want to. If GCAC brought this to a public vote, they’d likely lose. Taking it to City Council, they have a chance. There are lots of reasons why that might be true, but I don’t want to get in the weeds.

But clubs, theaters and organizations largely don’t want to pay an art tax for funding they’re never going to be eligible for — not just so they can say they have been altruistic. Columbus doesn’t care about its schools; I shudder to think what we’d say about an art tax for a single arts organization on a ballot.

The addition of Nationwide as a one-third beneficiary of the funds collected is a bald nod to the looming Amazon headquarters bid that wasn’t brought up at all until the last public meeting, when it was floated as a benefit of installing the tax. Such moves make it clear what this tax is and isn’t about.

So, it boils down to whether or not you want to support a good thing on a bad train, or no change. That sounds simple, but if we’re honest, we’ve been cutting these deals every day in this city for a lot less — or worse — than arts support. Not vote, mind you; you don’t get to vote on this. You get to decide how you want to live with the transparency on this.

As residents, we’ve been picking and choosing what we’ll live with the whole time. We’ve been moaning about gentrification (just to pick one off the pile) for a long time and we’ve changed nothing. And as a black resident I have a few stories about what people here care about versus what they don’t.

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