Guest Post: Heidi Rodeback – A Case for Public Arts Funding


Heidi Rodeback

[Editor’s Note: This post holds some interest for today’s vote in American Fork on a proposed 0.10% sales tax increment to support parks, arts, recreation, and culture, but its lasting value is a cogent explanation of why and how government funding of the arts makes sense. Heidi Rodeback is a local musician and served on the American Fork City Council for eight years.]

At American Fork’s October 28, 2014, city council meeting, I was present for Carlton Bowen’s statement in opposition to the PARC tax, which has been reported by Barbara Christiansen at the Provo Daily Herald. I agree more than disagree with Mr. Bowen on the following, but the disagreement is significant.

“Funding of the arts isn’t a proper or primary role of government and is better done without government funding,” he said. “At the federal level, government funding of the arts has led to obscene and disturbing art that taxpayers would never voluntarily fund. Citizens shouldn’t be forced to fund art that they find offensive, through taxation. At the local level, funding of the arts can lead to the same problems as at the federal level, where art offensive to the community is funded with tax dollars because the rules allow it and the city gets threatened with a lawsuit if they play favorites.”

Yes, the road to public arts funding is fraught with peril. Still, good government must navigate this road successfully, as arts are essential to civil society. As a professional musician, I have given this subject a lot of study, and I believe that arts funding, while not a primary role of government, is nevertheless a proper role. A community can navigate successfully by remembering the following:

  1. Arts have never succeeded without patronage. At various times in history, the patrons have been the church or the state or wealthy families such as the Rockefellers or the Medicis. In contemporary America, the public can fill this role, as in the cases of Orem with its CARE tax and Salt Lake with its ZAP tax.
  2. The role for the patron is not to produce or fund art directly, but to provide seed money. The best use of seed money is to provide facilities such as galleries or performing arts centers. Individual artists or symphonies can create paintings or performances, but they cannot create venues for themselves.
  3. The second-best use of seed money is to provide grants to artists and organizations that are already succeeding. Government-created art is an oxymoron — just ask the Soviets. But when successful artists are already generating revenue through tuition or the sale of work or tickets, a government grant can leverage that success to the benefit of the community by either (a) providing artists access to public facilities or (b) providing the public free access to art. In Seattle, where I spent my childhood, the city’s fantastic museums were able to offer the public a free day once each year through City funding. In American Fork, we enjoy free concerts in the park Monday nights in the summer.
  4. First amendment rights, which protect every kind of speech, including artistic and objectionable speech, also discourage government sponsorship of art with religious themes. This road must be navigated carefully, but it can be done. A granting organization, such as the American Fork Arts Council, is within its rights to create a mission statement clarifying its intent to fund arts programs expressive of community values, then to appoint an awarding committee empowered to interpret community values.

The American Fork Arts Council, for the most part, understands and employs sound principles. I respect Mr. Bowen’s concerns, but I have confidence that they will continue to be met appropriately.

Consider, as a single example, our local symphony orchestra. It thrives only because of a public-private partnership. The American Fork Symphony generates revenue through ticket sales and private donations; it also relies on the in-kind donations of its musicians’ time and talent. This is the private side of the partnership.

The public side of the partnership provides salary and space. The arts council pays a nominal honorarium for the director, without which the symphony could not ask her to prioritize rehearsal hours ahead of paid hours elsewhere. But the most significant public contribution comes in the form of rehearsal and performance space provided by the Alpine School District. It is true that the district charges rent on a reasonable scale, but it is important to understand that without the public’s up-front investment in the building of those facilities, there could be no symphony, and I would have no place to torment my children with concert dress and live classical music.

(Demand for school district facilities is significant, however, and our arts council cannot count on a guaranteed future there.)

The presence of art in a community is a rising tide that lifts all boats. Familes benefit; education benefits. Businesses also benefit, as arts patrons usually frequent local businesses on their way to and from productions, and employers locating or relocating in our community are able to offer employees a better quality of life. Recognizing this, businesses considering relocation — such as Adobe or Micron — always measure the artistic activity of a community, and, once established, often make generous grants to arts organizations. By providing a modest amount of seed money, a local government can generate an impact that blesses families and reverberates all the way through the economy.