Unfinished picture

Can Paul Schell become 'the Arts Mayor?' Does he want to?

In November 1997, Paul Schell handily whipped Charlie Chong in his race to become mayor of Seattle, in part by promising to be "the Arts Mayor." Not surprisingly, arts buffs felt betrayed when their champion, his chair barely warm, flatly rejected his Seattle Arts Commission's request for a budget hike and let it be known that the commission's five-year plan for the arts worked out at the behest of his predecessor Norm Rice was DOA.

Still, Schell, whose primary association with the arts was through his wife Pam's longtime board connection with Intiman Theater, had hopes of salvaging his rep. In May 1998 he belatedly rounded out his staff by appointing Yazmin Mehdi, a four-year veteran of the city budget office, as his Special Assistant for Arts and Culture.

But by that time City Council member Nick Licata had put his own initials on the art issue with a plan for a Neighborhood Arts Conference, designed to get artists and activists communicating and collaborating. Schell responded by suggesting a more ambitious project: bringing together a blue-ribbon task force of funders, managers, patrons, and artists to devise a framework for city arts policy to guide both mayoral and council thinking on the subject.

This Monday, June 28, the recommendations of the Seattle Arts Task Force will be rolled out to the public. To an outsider it's hard to see how it could have taken seven and a half months of tortuous and often contentious discussion to come up with such an apparently innocent and unexceptionable document. But in fact four out of the five actions the task force named as their highest priorities threaten one or another entrenched interest with loss of money, power, support, or all three.

The task force's most ticklish recommendation actually derives from a hint in the mayor's original charge to the group when it started meeting last October. What organizational form would best serve a city arts program, he asked: "Is the current organizational structure effective with some minor tweaking? Should we consider creating a Department of Arts and Cultural Affairs?"

Task force members could be excused for thinking that the mayor was suggesting they consider subordinating the Seattle Arts Commission to a new, "cabinet-level" department with wider responsibilities or perhaps eliminating it altogether. Since SAC commissioner Roger Bass happened to be himself a member of the task force, it was hard to find a tactful way to raise the point. Schell didn't clarify the situation by explaining that he hadn't meant to suggest disbanding SAC, since that left panelists wondering what he had meant to suggest.

SAC's wasn't the only turf threatened by the notion of an arts superdepartment. There are presently sizable arts programs administered by the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Neighborhoods, and, heftiest of all, by Seattle Center. On the positive side, a bigger, more powerful department would better be able to get mayoral and council attention. But when suggestions arose to fold in the Office of Film and Video, the Sister Cities program, and the public library's expanded Fine and Performing Arts programs, some task forcers, particularly those concerned with support for individual artists and small organizations, realized that "arts" in the narrower sense of the term could easily be lost in such a mega-merger. And, of pressing interest to all the arts bureaucrats: who would be chosen to run the show?

The recommendation in the final report: an executive director, who would "manage" a department which would "expand the functions currently performed by the Seattle Arts Commission" . . . "to include a public art program, support for artists and arts organizations, advocacy (including a strong neighborhoods component), coordination of certain performing arts and visual arts facilities, and arts tourism program . . . and a resource center for artists and arts organizations. . . ." And the current SAC? Demotion at best: "There would also be a citizen arts commission/body that would have a strong role in artistic decision making relative to the department and an advisory role on artistic policy."

Since he prompted its consideration in the first place, it's a safe bet that Schell will look kindly on the superdepartment notion. He's likely to be less satisfied with two other top recommendations.

Despite constant admonitions from staff that there was no more money to be had for the arts from the General Fund, and that budget projections for the next few years show shrinking rather than expansion of city revenues, the task force's first priority is to "increase funding for individual artists and arts organizations of all sizes," and to "establish a City policy to annually secure one percent of the General Fund to support the new department . . . by Fiscal Year 2001."

Laying out the ground rules back in October for the task force's deliberations, Schell asked for counsel in finding an "appropriate" funding source for city arts: "What creative, nonGeneral Fund revenue streams could we secure?" Having rejected his ban on proposing any rise in general fund support, the task force bent over backward to respond to his October plea to suggest "creative, nonGeneral Fund revenue streams" for the arts. The group came up with several, the big kahuna among them undoubtedly a suggestion to "establish a $200 Million Public Endowment for the Arts," accumulating about $15 million a year for 10 years. Unlike the misnamed federal program, this would be a true endowment, disbursing annually only the accumulated interest. Where would the money come from? You name it: new taxes on nonvoters (visiting entertainers and athletes); voluntary individual contributions (a check-off on public-utilities bills); special property taxes in neighborhoods which designate themselves "metropolitan arts districts"; even a suggested half-percent rise in the local sales tax, though even advocates of that rate its chances at slightly under zero.

Innocent, even idealistic as such a concept seems at first glance, it's not without its potential for generating discord. If I contribute $100 to the fund via my City Light bill, is that $100 I don't give to Seattle Opera's annual fund drive? The current big charitable winners are going to want to know before they get behind such a plan.

And who's going to be in charge of passing out all that money (at least $10 million a year at full funding)? "A foundation board of private citizens representing the full spectrum of the arts in Seattle," says the draft report, wholly begging the question. Are the awards going to be based on merit, or a means test? Or a system like SAC's today, as a percentage of each group's budget, ensuring that the rich get richer faster than the poor? What happens when an artist's work offends "community standards"? Whose community?

Despite the plethora of open questions and papered-over problems, the task force report may help focus attention on some long-neglected issues. City support for the Arts Commission has stagnated for so long that a program which was a model and pioneer for the nation in 1971 has dwindled to a distant also-ran in arts funding when compared to other cities our size. In attempting to re-lay his claim to being "the Arts Mayor," Schell has put himself in a position of explaining why his dream of "a world-class city" can't match Des Moines or Tallahassee in support for the arts.

 
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