It’s time for a regional arts council

by Jim Longworth

Three years ago something happened that garnered very little media attention, but it was significant nonetheless. That’s when Chevron/Texaco ended its storied sponsorship of the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts that had dated back to 1940. It was a prestigious and effective use of advertising dollars – not as highly rated as Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater of the late 1940s, but successful by all measures. The weekly radio broadcasts reached more than 10 million listeners in 42 countries. But Texaco decided to do some belt tightening and the fat lady just didn’t fit into the oil giant’s long-range plans. Texaco wasn’t the first corporation to cut spending on the arts, but their pullout signaled a new era of philanthropic stinginess.

According to Charity Navigator, a company that rates non profit organizations, donations to arts groups is on the decline, dropping by more $13 billion dollars in 2005.

And so, no one was surprised recently when Winston-Salem Arts Council President Milton Rhodes went looking for money at city hall. The surprise came, however, when municipal folks discovered exactly how Rhodes wanted the money collected. Milton asked the city manager to create a special tax district to support the arts, and suggested that so-called big box retailers in the Hanes Mall/Stratford road corridor foot the bill.

Needless to say Rhodes’ overture was not well received by his audience.

Forsyth County Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt and Twin City Mayor Allen Joines immediately gave the idea a thumbs down, which was pretty bold considering that both leaders like to brag about the “City of the Arts,” and that Joines’ wife Peggy has devoted a great deal of her time to cheerleading for the city-county arts council.

Still, Joines and Whisenhunt raised a valid concern. Speaking with the Winston-Salem Journal, the mayor said, “I don’t think government should force companies to give money where they don’t want to give.” (Nice sentiment, but what about the income tax, the machinery and tools tax, and the utility tax?) Ironically, though, big companies can benefit from making donations. Rhodes makes the argument that the arts generates $104 million dollars a year in Forsyth County alone – nearly triple the revenues generated in Guilford. And arts in Winston-Salem create jobs – thousands of them.

And so, Rhodes was understandably frustrated when his request for $200,000 from the county was whittled down to a meager $23,000. After all, he can prove that the arts contribute to economic development. And while the arts council hopes to raise $2.5 million dollars this year (about a million more than the Greensboro council is seeking), donations are never a sure thing, especially in these times of plant closings and layoffs. That’s why some seed money from local government in some form is essential.

The problem is big-box retailers are already taxed to death, so creating a new tax district just to support the arts is an idea whose time will never come.

Having said that, I agree that many chain stores don’t support local artists and other non-profit groups as they should. Often, decisions on spending are made at corporate or regional headquarters, which are located far away from the Triad. Still, one’s charitable spirit should never be regulated or legislated.

And so, it is up to local councils and their recipient organizations to get creative and aggressive. The Winston-Salem and Greensboro arts councils each support more than a dozen organizations such as the Piedmont Opera and the Greensboro Opera, symphonies for each locality, a ballet company, various theaters, and the Eastern Music Festival.

Currently, each recipient has its own marketing priorities in accordance with their own niche consumers. And, as was just cited, there are several entities that have identical functions and missions – all of this administered by two nearly identical, fully staffed councils.

So here’s my proposal for strengthening and sustaining the arts in our area.

First, combine the two arts councils from Greensboro and Winston-Salem into one regional entity – the Triad Arts Council. There would be only one, pared-down staff to oversee operations and administer grants.

Second, combine any duplicative performing groups and organizations. Fund just one opera company, one symphony and one regional craftsmen entity. Then, anticipate the infantile, stupid geographical prejudices that exist between and among residents of Greensboro towards Winston-Salem, and vice versa, by having the combined groups perform in both cities – sort of like home and away games.

Third, direct the new Triad Arts Council to engage the services of an experienced public relations firm – I nominate Annese PR, which is appropriately located across the street from the Stevens Center – to centralize and coordinate all publicity functions for all member organizations. This will give the media one credible source to turn to for information regarding concerts, plays and festivals.

Fourth, city councils and county commissions from the affected areas will contribute funds to the arts commensurate with any other viable economic development project, and that includes earmarking a substantial advertising budget. Here again, the new council would hire an arts-friendly ad agency to create ongoing, top-of-the-mind awareness for and appreciation of our diverse cultural offerings. And here’s some advice on marketing. Don’t be afraid to reach out to all ages, genders and races. Make the arts accessible, not exclusive. Remember that in centuries past, Shakespeare and the opera were patronized mainly by lower-income citizens. And make the advertising fun. Let teenagers know it’s okay to sneak a kiss during a ballet. There’s nothing more romantic than a darkened theater for your first date. Necking and opera can go hand in hand, so to speak, so worry not that youngsters might be long on libido and short on libretto.

I know that my proposal will draw not-so-friendly fire from some in the arts community, and I realize that making the transition to a single Triad Arts Council will be somewhat problematic. But in the end the entire region will benefit, and so will the artists and artisans.

Perhaps the day will come when an arts tax or special bond referendum will fly, but only if it is part of a shared vision, and only if taxpayers feel a sense of ownership in the arts. So let’s preserve the arts, not by taxing the big box, but by thinking outside of it.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” which can be seen Friday mornings at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7), and Sunday nights at 10 p.m.