Response to Survey Request | Supporting the Arts

October 3, 2019

From: Bigger Pie <info@biggerpiesav.org>

Sent: Tuesday, October 01, 2019 3:28 PM

To: Bill Durrence

Subject: Arts and Culture Candidate Questionnaire

 

Dear Mr. Durrence,

We've met before, but I'm writing to you today as Executive Director of the Arts Advocacy organization Bigger Pie. This correspondence is on behalf of a coalition of over 35 artists and art organizations, including the Arts and Culture Alliance of Chatham County, Deep Center, Arts Georgia, Americans for the Arts, and Loop it Up Savannah, as well as internationally recognized Savannah-based artists such as Jerome Meadows, Suzanne Jackson, and Tiffani Taylor.   

 

Working together, we have composed an Arts and Culture Questionnaire that we’re sending out to all of the candidates in the upcoming City Council elections. The goal is to get a better understanding of your position on arts and culture so that we, as a major constituency, can be more informed when it comes time to cast our votes.   

 

We’d greatly appreciate it if you’d take the time to fill out this online survey by Tuesday, October 8th. Early voting begins on October 15th, and we intend to release all of the responses that we receive simultaneously sometime between those two dates (or indicate “no response” should a given candidate choose not to answer these questions from the art community).   

 

We are also attaching a PDF of Arts & Economic Prosperity 5, a summary report on the importance of art and culture support to create jobs, generate commerce, and drive increased tourism to cities.   

 

Each candidate is receiving a unique link to the questionnaire so please do not share this to maintain accurate reporting. Your link is:   

 

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/KPB92TT  

 

Please confirm that you have received the survey ASAP.   Note that your opponent Detric Leggett has already committed to completing the questionnaire. 

 

We look forward to learning more about how you intend to support art and culture in Savannah over the next four years!   

 

With Gratitude,   

 

Rob Hessler 

Executive Director, Bigger Pie


October 3, 2019

Supporting the Arts

 

Rob, et al:

 

Thank you for inviting me to participate in your survey to gauge my level of support for arts and culture.  I am happy to try to answer what is a very broad question in the paragraphs that follow, but I will not fill out the flawed survey you provided.  The phrasing of some of the questions was overly simplistic and showed a misunderstanding of the nature of government funding in general.  In the real world, there are very few yes or no answers.  Obviously, you can choose to share this as you like, but I have added recipients whose email addresses I have and will be posting this on my social media.

 

I support the concepts of public art (however funded) and some public funding of the arts.  The execution of those ideas, though, has real world constraints.  Artwork to be displayed in the public spaces of a community cannot be overtly offensive.  Of course, beauty, and offense, is in the eye of the beholder, and limiting how edgy public work can be may have a neutering effect in some cases, but there is plenty of good work that does not offend.  Also, practically speaking, if you press the limits of community sensitivities enough, there will be no willingness to allow public art.

 

As for public funding, the bottom line is, literally, the budget.  Currently the City of Savannah provides annual cultural arts grants of around three quarters of a million dollars. 

 

In 2018 those grants supported such recipients as:

  •  The Coastal Jazz Festival, 30,000 participants;

  •  Deep Center Literacy Programming, 2,140 participants;

  •  Live Oak Public Libraries “School that Author” program, 12,000 participants;

  •  Savannah Ballet Theater: The Nutcracker”, 4,800 participants;

  •  Savannah Music Festival, 56,000 participants;

  •  Savannah Philharmonic: “Picnic in the Park” and “Philharmonic in the Streetz”,   21,850 participants;

  •  Savannah State “Black Heritage Festival”, 23,800 participants;

  •  Telfair Museum: “Art in our Neighborhoods”, 125,000 participants; and more.

I support that effort and would like to increase the amount, but that will be difficult.  The City’s expenses are growing faster than its revenues and just continuing at the current level will be challenging in the next few years.

 

I believe the requirements we have for the grants are appropriate to Council’s fiscal responsibility to the tax paying citizens of the City:

  • That there be specific deliverables to the community;

  • That our funds are not used for general operations support;

  • That there be accountability for the funds;

  • That our funding be matched by other sources as evidence the community believes the event or project is worthwhile;

  • That the benefits of the project benefit primarily residents of the City of Savannah rather than the regional population.

 

Specifically, in terms of not providing operating support for a business, I don’t believe the City should be in the practice of picking winners and losers, whether it’s a shoe store or an art gallery.

 

You have suggested that the current model of Public-Private Partnerships (P3) is not sustainable and that the City should create a dedicated funding source for the arts.  The Police Department, Fire and Rescue, street paving, stormwater/flooding management, and Greenscapes do NOT have dedicated funding and must compete in the annual budget decisions.  It is fiscally naïve to think the arts should be exempt from that exercise.

 

If you were able to convince a Council to create a dedicated fund, no Council can legally bind a future Council.  That fund could be easily eliminated by the next round of elections.  In fact, P3s are the only long-term sustainable model.  It is only through the private support of the arts that you will convince elected officials of the viability, and positive perceptions, of providing public, supplemental funding.

 

You also suggested a Visual Arts Festival for Savannah and I like that idea, but like the Film Festival, and the Music Festival, it will need a parent organization to promote and operate it.  That is not a business for the City to be in.  I do think that would be the sort of new programming the City should support and think that all our grant funding should be prioritized more to well-vetted nascent organizations and programs.

 

Other ways the City already supports the arts:

 

  • Our new $25 million Cultural Arts Center, with a variety of workshop options, film society presentations bi-weekly, a gallery for exhibitions, and a dance studio and almost 500-seat auditorium for events;

  • $165 million for a new state of the arts Arena, adaptable for events from 9500 attendees to just a couple of thousand, end-stage or in-the-round configurations for a variety of performers/performances, and with the ability to do the kind of demanding rigging a show like Cirque du Soleil requires, not possible in our current, antiquated arena.  This facility should lend itself to a variety of visual arts displays as well;

  • Facilitating organizations fundraising with alternative efforts such as letters of support we send with various grant proposals they make to agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts;

  • Facilitating cultural events with street closures, barricades, additional policing efforts, and staff time involved in arranging those events.  While some permits are required and fees paid, those fees do not cover the costs of that support.
     

There are more things we can do, and I would start with making our regulations for murals easier to use.  I was in Rio de Janeiro last spring and loved the extensive mural displays in the Santa Teresa area of the city.  There are parts of Savannah where that seems an appropriate activity.
 

A couple of the questions on your survey need much more information.  You asked about arts organizations getting the same incentives for development as other industries and you mentioned specifically retail, manufacturing, and tourism.

 

The only business development incentives that the City offers are property tax abatements if a new business opens in one of several specified locations.  Those abatements can be for 10 years and require a level of investment to qualify, but that is the only criteria.  There would be no distinction between a restaurant, a manufacturer, an artist’s studio, or a gallery.

 

As for tourism businesses, they mostly pay us.  Each adult on a tour pays a $1 fee that is used by the City to maintain areas impacted by touring, and hotel guests pay a 6% lodging tax that is divided with about half coming to the City (around $11 million annually, which goes into our General Fund for various operating expenses) and the rest to Visit Savannah and the Convention Center.  Those proportions are established by the General Assembly.

 

You suggest the City should have the “board of tourism” market Savannah as an arts and culture destination; nice idea (much better than the bachelorette parties), but the City does not have a board of tourism.  The City’s Tourism Advisory Committee (TAC) includes representatives from various stakeholder groups to advise on management of the regulatory aspects of tourism in the City.  The appropriate agency to talk to about marketing concepts is Visit Savannah, a division of the Chamber of Commerce.

 

There is also a local rental car fee that has been used to supplement the funding for the Civic Center and in the future will be used to fund the balance of capital costs for the Arena to avoid using General Fund tax revenue for that project.

 

You also asked arts groups be provided the same government services as others, and I believe in that kind of equity, but you don’t indicate what services others have that you don’t.

 

You asked about the possibility of using City owned vacant lots for free or a small fee.  I don’t think we have much inventory of vacant lots except FEMA lots, purchased because of flooding issue and those lots have strict usage restrictions from FEMA.  Also, any activity on City property creates a liability for the City, so any use of that property would probably require the user to indemnify the City against any and all liabilities, an insurance policy that could make the use of that property much less affordable.  With consideration for those issues, I would be supportive of this idea.

 

The booklet you attached to make the point about the economic value of the arts was unnecessary in my case.  Your survey asked why I think I’m the best candidate, at least relative to your issues, and I believe it’s because I am a creative and a supporter of the arts.  I spent over 50 years in a career as a photographer, and I understand, far better than my opponent, the ups and downs of trying to make a living that way.  I also understand the limits of the City’s resources better than he does and will not make you any empty promises about things the City cannot afford to do.

 

I think that booklet shows how strong the arts community is in Savannah, at least partly because of the support that the City has provided, and even more so because of the entrepreneurial efforts of the creative class here.  That’s what really grows the arts.  You mentioned the new galleries and other activities developed in the last few years.

 

Otherwise the booklet was more of a negative for me.  The methodology for arriving at numbers seems questionable.  It purports, repeatedly, to be about arts economics in the City of Savannah, but in several places, it talks about numbers from Chatham County.  To use County revenue numbers as reason why Savannah should spend to support the arts begs the question—what have you asked from the County Commission or the other 7 municipalities?  The figures you quote were apparently derived from those areas as well.  And when you talk about all the artists who derive an income and spend here, how many of them live outside the city limits of Savannah?

 

These questions matter because too many people keep coming to the City of Savannah to solve regional issues from homelessness to arts and social agency funding.  That’s an undue burden on the City’s taxpayers, and if you want to have a serious conversation about funding anything, you must start by not equating the City of Savannah and Chatham County.

 

bd

 

 

 

 

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