If you were making a list of gung ho supporters of the arts in Congress, Washington Sen. Slade Gorton would not be likely to make the cut. So why will Slade be slipping into a tux next week to accept an award for "legends and leaders who have made significant contributions to the advancement of the arts in America"?
If Gorton has something of an anti-arts rep, it's largely due to his agreement with other conservative pols that the National Endowment for the Arts was way out of line when, even indirectly, it funded art—Mapplethorpe, Serrano, Finley, et al.—patently offensive to a large swath of otherwise tolerant Americans. But he never in fact voted for one of the numerous motions to "zero out" funding for the NEA, and Washington insiders say that without Gorton as chair of the Senate subcommittee on appropriations for the Interior Department budget last session, the NEA might just have gone down, stabbed in the back by a House Republican maneuver that dropped the agency's funding entirely.
As it was, the NEA not only survived to fight another year but at Gorton's behest got a symbolic $1 million budgetary boost. No wonder that Americans for the Arts lobby hustled to nominate him, along with Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson and Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York for its first annual tribute banquet in association with the National Conference of Mayors. Gorton was overheard at a local Christmas party wryly remarking that his support for the NEA had made him some enemies back in the other Washington. Maybe so, but for what it's worth, it's also made him some unlikely new friends back home.
Arts pork in Appletown?
Over most of the last decade, Washington state's Building for the Arts program has been a model for smart, cost-effective ways of supporting cultural initiatives in communities statewide. On close examination, though, the appropriations for the 1997-99 biennium gives cause for fear that Building for the Arts islosing its carefully crafted insulation from political manipulation and sliding into the same pork barrel that has consumed so many other once-worthy initiatives.
BFTA was conceived as a way of supporting the arts at zero ultimate cost to the state. Any culturally related facility is eligible to apply for support up to 15 percent of its capital cost: Through sales taxes (and the "multiplier" effect as construction spending ripples down through the state and local economies) the state gets that 15 percent and more back in revenue. In the 1995-97 biennium, grants ranged from nearly a million dollars (for the renovation of Seattle's Paramount Theater) to as little as $10,000 (for a cultural centerfor the Steilacoom tribe), but none exceeded the traditional 15 percent ceiling.
There's a glaring exception to that rule in the current 1997-99 appropriation. Among the funding recommendations of the blue ribbon BFTA committee to the Department of Community Development was $1 million toward an $8 millionplus theater complex for Wenatchee's downtown cultural and convention center. Commission staff pared the initial request down to a politically and fiscally doable $6 million, in part by trimming here and there but mainly by removing (postponing, one hopes) $1.5 million to complete the state's part of the cost of the Seattle Symphony's Benaroya Hall.
By the time the appropriation emerged from the Legislature for the governor's signature last spring, though, the Wenatchee Civic Center allocation had swelled to $3 million. An amount of $1 million toward Wenatchee's new two-theater complex would have been well within the BFTA guidelines (less than 12 percent of the gross construction cost, in fact). The sum of $3 million amounts to more than a third of the project's budget, not only breaking the heretofore hard-and-fast 15 percent ceiling but hogging a good half of the program's allocations for a single project among a total of 18.
Art Town has talked to a lot of folks in Olympia trying to find out how that extra $2 million got onto Wenatchee's plate. Nobody seems to know, or is prepared to talk. Is it unfair to speculate that the Apple Capital's cultural bonanza has something to do with the fact that Wenatchee's representative in the state Legislature is Clyde Ballard—and, not incidentally, Republican Speaker of the House? Ballard, now in his seventh two-year term, has enthusiastically supported BFTA in the past. It would be ironic if a project in his home district were responsible for destroying the credibility of the program he's helped to keep above petty regional politics for so long.