Taking The Axe To Arts Funding, City Council Plays Blame Game

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Posted September 18, 2012 by Andrew McLemore in Blotch
The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. COURTESY OF KENT WANG.The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. COURTESY OF KENT WANG.

Arts lovers once again took to the podium Tuesday in an attempt to dissuade the Fort Worth City Council from cutting $267,000 from arts funding. About 40 showed up to council wearing T-shirts supportive of arts funding, with at least two dozen more cheering their support as a handful of local business owners, nonprofit leaders and artists made their case.

Then the council cut the funding anyway.

After nearly all of the council members took turns asking everyone to give them some slack because they have really hard jobs, they approved a city budget with cuts to the arts and social services. Only council member Joel Burns voted against the budget.

As we reported in detail last week, supporters of the Arts Council of Fort Worth and Tarrant County, which distributes money to at least 100 local arts groups,  had made strong arguments that funding for the arts pumps beau coup bucks into the local economy, and that that the arts council’s funding could be maintained by dipping into a $10 million surplus in the Culture and Tourism Fund, a reserve fueled by hotel taxes.

Evidently, their arguments fell on unwilling ears. Council member Sal Espino gave the first of many impassioned speeches from council members about the need to maintain arts funding. Espino mentioned the hotel tax idea, said the council would “look into other dedicated revenue streams” — and then voted for the budget cuts.

Council member Danny Scarth, who cried while talking about how tough it’s been for him to decide how to cut the budget, also promised to look for other ways to fund the arts. Most council members seemed to support the idea, but no one made a motion to create a task force to study the issue.

Council members Jungus Jordan and Zim Zimmerman both chastised activists for a lack of participation — Jordan said they hadn’t complained early enough while Zimmerman, somewhat inexplicably, pointed out that only 10 percent of Fort Worth residents vote in city council elections. (We’d hazard to guess that the people who spend three and a half hours at a weekday morning council meeting are probably the same ones who show up to the polls.)

Mayor Betsy Price blamed the city’s “aging infrastructure” for its continued budget problems, while newly elected Kelly Gray talked about her inexperience and “how difficult” the budget had been. Ditto for council members Frank Moss and Dennis Shingleton.

As for Burns, the only council member to receive a standing ovation, said he wouldn’t vote for the budget because, for the first time, he didn’t think this year had been “a fair process.” The city has cut arts funding for several years in a row, he pointed out.

How long before mainstay events like the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which Dallas is “chompin’ at the bit” to get in their city, move someplace else? Burns asked.

“Saying we’ll come back and fund it later is great,” he said. “But will we do it in time?”

The council cut back more than just the arts. For a third year, they reduced funding to Directions Home, a program that provides housing and job opportunities for the homeless. Funding for street repairs and Fort Worth Sister Cities also took a hit.

To the council’s credit, they addressed longstanding complaints with the cost of parking at the Will Rogers Memorial Parking Center. The $5 flat fee was changed to a varying rate, with the first 45 minutes free. That could bring crowds back to arts-related events that had suffered a decline in attendance with the parking fees.

Still, the council has now cut arts funding by more than 50 percent in a city with the slogan “Cowboys and Culture.”

In an interesting argument, Travis Baugh, the president of a biologic drugs company, told the council that the talented PhDs his company needs to thrive all want to live in a place that nourishes the arts. He’s hired three of them in the last year. Defunding the arts has broad consequences, Baugh said.

“The arts are very important to them. One of them is a classical guitarist,” he said. “Let’s don’t be known as the generation that led to the decline of arts in Fort Worth.”


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