CHARLOTTE – Three months after voters shot down a proposal to support the arts through a quarter-cent sales tax increase, the Arts & Science Council continues lobbying Charlotte and Mecklenburg County leaders for public funding.
ASC President Jeep Bryant met with county commissioners Feb. 11 to formally ask the board for $5 million for the next fiscal year. He told them ASC is also seeking $7 million from Charlotte City Council, though those talks are preliminary.
The ASC successfully convinced commissioners last year to put a bond referendum on the November ballot that could potentially generate $50 million to be split among arts, county parks and education. The proposal failed at the polls, as 57.4% of the 121,314 people voted against the bond referendum.
However, the county has been seeking feedback from the community as it develops next year’s budget.
“We hear the voices of those that have come to this commission to say that cultural investments really are a part of the fabric of education, of community development, of upward mobility,” Bryant told commissioners. “We hear the need to invest in a more dynamic, more equitable ecosystem for arts, science and history to flourish and we hear the need to serve all residents regardless of where they live, where they learn or where they come from.”
The county already provides a little more than $2 million to the ASC through two initiatives:
• Culture Blocks: Cultural programming that occurs at libraries, parks and other community spaces.
• Studio 345: A free youth development program that uses digital photography and arts to help keep kids in school.
Bryant broke down the $5 million request for next year by program: $1.5 million for Culture Blocks (a $550,000 increase), $500,000 for Studio 345 (a $150,000 increase), $1 million for operating support grants, $750,000 for Spirit Square operations, $450,000 for individual artist grants, $400,000 for school funding opportunities and $400,000 for Cultural Vision grants.
Commissioner Susan Harden, a proponent of the quarter-cent sales tax, described the ASC’s request as transformational.
“This is a great start toward making a great impact especially in those areas that haven’t been funded before,” Harden said.
Commissioners Pat Cotham, Vilma Leake and Mark Jerrell sought more information from ASC about how the county’s share of the funding compares to other sources of revenue, such as the city and private donors.
Leake was the most critical of the proposal, saying her constituents in west Charlotte have been ignored when it comes to high-level arts programming like opera.
Bryant was prepared for Leake’s critique, noting the ASC’s Culture Blocks program held 28 programs in her voter district, 10 of which targeted senior citizens.
Aside from a budget, Leake told Bryant she wanted a list of ASC’s employees broken down by gender and race. She went as far as to ask Bryant what his salary is ($220,000) and how much he makes in terms of bonuses (0 since he’s in his first year).
“I have a real concern when you ask for that kind of money to be going to programs that’s not going to impact the lives of the greater number of children that really need it when poverty is really rampant in Mecklenburg County,” Leake said. “How then can the Arts and Sciences Council help those people who are suffering because they don’t have the funds? They don’t get the proper education, the proper housing and they certainly don’t get the proper food and living conditions as they ought to be.”
Bryant told county commissioners that ASC has lowered costs by eliminating four positions, which brings its staff down to 31 people, as well as trimming back on consulting fees, travel and other line items. Moving forward, Bryant said the budget will be built based on specific programs they have been charged to deliver.