Monday, January 17, 2011

Wilmington Arts Council? Hold onto your wallet...

Armed with new vigor, social "progressive" activists in both the private sector, as well as several elected officials, are pitching hard for another Wilmington Arts Council - yet one more taxpayer-funded bureaucracy to further bloat a ridiculously over-sized local government with excesses and expense.

Typical arts council schlock -
what would we do without
stuff like this?
The original Wilmington Arts Council fizzled out in 2002; however, we are assured that this one has the keys to success. What exactly are those keys? Well get this - economic development. That's right. An arts council whose secondary focus is the arts. As if economic development weren't a term that already commits us to more tax obligations every budget year, than anything else that government does outside of core services. Currently, both the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County dole out piles of our cash every year to agencies completely unaccountable to the taxpayer, in the name of almighty "economic development".  Groups like Wilmington Downtown Inc.(WDI), who regularly hosts arts functions downtown in the name of economic development. WDI utilizes tax dollars to market small one time exclusive art viewings, music shows, theater, and other entertainment under the guise of "economic development" - and does so without the inconvenience of ever having to prove that such activities benefit the taxpayer in any substantial way. WDI, an economic development agency, seems to have economic development as its secondary focus, and art as its first. They have tried to push the "art = economic development" model for years, and they still aren't even self-sufficient.

Wilmington Industrial Development (WID) is another agency whose prime objective is economic development. The city and county both have an iron-clad contract with WID that holds the taxpayers responsible for their funding for years to come. Hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars are absorbed by this group, made up of hundreds of local business and political power players; who operate comfortably out of the pesky view of the public. Who needs all those people poking around wondering where their money is going?

The new Wilmington Arts Council is going to be focused on tourism as well, as if this is some undiscovered territory that holds the key to unlocking all of the secrets to fixing or local economy. The city and county both fund the Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau who already man the task of tourism development. We now need an arts council to supplement their efforts?

Philip Gerard, who sits on the arts council steering committee, and who is of course a professor at UNCW in the creative writing field, said “Wilmington is missing out on major dollars,” referring to the lack of an arts council; which, according to Gerard, is the reason for our financial plight.

Back in 2008, Wilmington City Council prescribed a taxpayer-funded survey by the NC Arts Council, whose findings determined that the Cape Fear region should in fact create an arts council within the next 12-18 months, and appropriate a budget of over $200,000. Imagine that - and arts council being paid to survey the need for a potential arts council finds that yes - we need an arts council.

Knowing that money is tight right now, and spending has gotten out of hand, the steering committee is trying to sell its bill of goods under the economic label - even touting that an arts council would equate to jobs. Using the language of the times, their argument is amazingly gaining traction. The committee claims that 5% of the area's jobs are in the creative industry, and therefore, an arts council is needed. They tell us that we have seen an "incredible drain" of artists and creatives since 2002, and therefore, an arts council is needed. "It's an economic development issue", recites City Councilwoman Laura Padgett from the playbook. Interestingly, she has urged other members of city council to view funding the arts council as an "investment", which has positive connotations with the current cabal in power.

Making capital investments with tax dollars seem to be what elected leaders on council pretend that their job consists of. Just ask Mayor Bill Saffo, who just received an award for his visionary leadership and capital risk for the convention center project, in which he used other people's money, against their will, with no risk to himself whatsoever. Wilmington City Council views itself more as a private sector board of governors; yet they are not required to earn their revenue through pesky private sector constraints such as "supply and demand" and "competition". Theirs is taken by force and spread around at whim like candy to whatever feel-good project happens to be on the front burner at the time.

I love art. I am an artist myself. I know many artists, I am married to an artist, and art is a way of life for my wife and I. However, never have we had a conversation that consisted of our artistic endeavors being in any way restricted by a lack of a taxpayer-funded arts council. Of all of my artist friends - not one of them has ever mentioned that "if only we had an arts council, then we could pursue our art". Art is a tough way to make a living. Many factors are involved - not the least of which consists of finding a location that is affordable, so that the pittance one receives through his/her creative ventures has the ability to provide for their sustenance. Not having as many artists in our area is not a symptom of having no arts council, it is a symptom of having too many councils, and boards, and authorities, and convention centers, and economic development agencies, and all of the other progressive projects that take money away from that which local government must provide.

Our crime rate is embarrassing. Our streets are deteriorating. Traffic is mayhem. Every government-controlled board and authority has been rife with problems, constantly needs more of our money, and cannot seem to do their job properly. Now they are telling us we need yet another one. Artists are leaving because they can't afford it, and they could go somewhere else that runs efficiently, making their lives easier.

Arts council serve no purpose other than another notch in the resumes of those in power who try and outdo themselves everyday by spending our money on feel-good projects that they can attach their names to. The $200,000 a year required to fund this organization is a large amount of money that we don't have - money that could go toward roads and public safety; both of which are in dire need of attention. But those aren't sexy projects that get anyone's name on a plaque, require a photo-op, or a much-hyped ribbon cutting ceremony.

You want more art and artists? Cut government to the bone across the board. Attend to that which government should be focused on. Artists everywhere will see a beautiful, well-managed, affordable river city; friendly to their cause; and flock here, as they once did.


  1. Oh ben, can't wait to support your next run for City Hall -- NOT.

  2. Great post, Nevermore. I disagree with your main premise -- I don't think you can have "beautiful and well-managed" or even maybe "affordable" without some government focus, for example.

    But I think you're on to something in your analysis of the arts council debate, as I've tried to say here:

  3. Before one dismisses an arts council I would hope that they have done research on the outstanding support and benefits that an arts council can bring to artists and a city. Let me make sure to include that it can only happen if you have a director in place that has a backbone and is a whole brain with a strong background in the arts, business and experience with government. Trust me when I say a person such as this is hard to come by and if you can find one grab them and just see what can be accomplished. You just may change your mind.


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