THE BLOG
11/16/2012 10:39 pm ET | Updated Jan 16, 2013

What Did the 2012 Election Mean for the D.C. Arts Community?

The Americans for the Arts recently re-circulated by email a 2009 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) publication titled, "How the United States Funds the Arts." You can read a few excerpts from the 28-page booklet on the website of the D.C. Advocates for the Arts, and the NEA publication outlines how arts advocates measure government arts support.

The booklet begins:

The U.S. system of arts support... combines federal, state and local government support with private subvention from individuals, corporations, and foundations, as well as box office receipts. The financial statistics differ by art form and change from year to year, but in 2004 about 44 percent of the income generated by American arts organizations came from sales or the box office. The rest was donated -- overwhelmingly from the private sector. Only about 13 percent of arts support in the U.S. came from the government, and only about 9 percent from the federal government.

According to the NEA, in normal conditions, Federal arts funding can be expected to equal zero to ten percent of an arts organization's annual operating budget, and State arts funding may be five to ten percent (or more) of that same budget. Arts businesses expect and need that level of funding, and evaluating the recent election, the most important metric is how it might alter the ability of arts organizations to receive that funding.

On the Federal level, President Obama's re-election guarantees a climate supportive of the arts. However, the funding level for the National Endowment for the Arts is unlikely to rise, and is in danger of decline, due to the impending "fiscal cliff" and debt ceiling crisis, and expected broad Federal budget reductions. Because the funding line for the arts is so very small within the overall budget, it's unlikely that there will be a major increase or decrease, but with the House still under Republican control, the Federal arts budget remains vulnerable.

On the State/Local level, District of Columbia arts funding recently rebounded following years of decline. In 2009, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities had a budget greater than $14 million, which was then slashed in successive budgets down to just $4 million in 2012. Last year, thanks to D.C. City Council member Jack Evans (and with the support of the entire D.C. City Council), the D.C. arts budget moved back toward 2009 levels, with a funding level of over $11 million.

In evaluating the recent Local elections, some key questions are: did we gain or lose arts supporters in the City Council? Did we gain or lose arts champions in the City Council?

The D.C. Council includes eight members elected one from each ward, four at large members, and one at large Council Chair. In this recent election, four of the ward seats (Wards 2, 4, 7 and 8) were up for election, as were two at large seats and the Council Chair position. Each of the ward Council seats was won by the incumbent, including arts champions Jack Evans (Ward 2) and Marion Barry (Ward 8).

The committee restructuring that occurred under the prior Council Chair moved arts to oversight within a (new) Small and Local Business Development committee. One of the at large seats up for election this past Tuesday was won by incumbent Vincent Orange, the sitting Chair of the Small and Local Business Development committee. Arts supporter Phil Mendleson won his election to become the new Council Chair, and it's unclear how his leadership will affect the Council's oversight of and funding for the arts. (The Council Chair sets the committee structure, and appointments committee chairs.) The other at large seat up for election was the big change of this election: incumbent Michael Brown lost his seat to challenger David Grosso. Council member Brown had been a champion for the arts, but his replacement David Grosso seems poised to emerge as a new arts champion on the Council.

There may be growing arts support within the Council, but it's anyone's guess where the FY14 arts budget will be when it arrives from the Mayor for the Council's consideration this spring. Looking toward the budget process it's impossible to ignore the political implications of the Mayoral and Council elections happening the following year. Because of a series of scandals, Mayor Gray had been considering not running for re-election, and that meant that several members of the Council were readying to run to take his place. Recent indications are that he will run again, but there's little reason for him to announce until after this coming budget season.

The District of Columbia is fortunate to have both a long and recent history of strong arts support, and the 2012 election did not significantly alter the political landscape. While local arts organizations only require a small percentage of their annual budget to come from government funding, that funding is critical to a healthy, diverse, and bountiful arts ecosystem.

Immediate policy challenges that the next arts budget should address include increased need for operating support for large and mid-sized arts organizations, a plan for resolution of the city's management of the Lincoln Theater and restoration of funding programs for individual artists, emerging artists, and emerging organizations, all of which were either diluted or scrapped entirely during the recent downturn.