June 19, 2021
Lawrence, US 90 F
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Marlo Angell: Where is city funding for arts and culture? (Column)

Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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Imagine Lawrence without downtown sculptures … without public recognition of artists … without grant programs to bring us together in spaces like the Lawrence Arts Center, the library and the Watkins Museum of History. 

Well, that was 2020. And it’s looking like 2021 will be more of the same because of a lack of specific, stable funds designated for the Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission. 

When I accepted an appointment to the Cultural Arts Commission in 2019, funding for LCAC’s grant programs came through the city’s general fund. But later that year, in an effort to offset a budget deficit in the Parks and Recreation department, our funding source was moved to the transient guest tax — an unstable funding stream dependent on hotel revenue. I raised a red flag on this change right away and have voiced this concern at nearly every meeting since that decision was made. 

Why was this move so problematic? To begin with, The Transient Guest Tax Grant program, a vital program that funds events that bring in outside visitors, was coincidentally and unceremoniously reduced by $30,000 in that same budget cycle. Without the grant program, events like the Free State Festival and Busker Festival that bring so much vitality to our city simply would not exist. Then, when COVID-19 hit, the amount of money flowing from hotel revenue into the grant program all but dried up.

I strongly believe that the mission of the Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission should not be tied to tourism dollars. Although the city’s cultural initiatives often intersect with outside visitors staying in hotels, it should also be recognized that the arts are uniquely valuable to the internal economy of our city — its livability, mental health and wellness, as well as its capacity for attracting business to both relocate to and stay in Lawrence. 

For a community that routinely touts arts and culture assets in marketing campaigns and strategic planning documents, the amount of funding our programs actually receive is quite limited – and currently hanging by a thread.  

The city recently engaged an outside consultant, Ernst & Young, to assist in developing a communitywide economic development strategic plan. It listed arts and culture at the very top of the city’s economic assets and priorities. The consultants suggested a goal of creating “policies, programs, and partnerships that enhance the character and culture of the community” and a strategy of “creating programs that recover, sustain, and grow the arts & entertainment community in Lawrence both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.”

But here we are, for the second year in a row, unable to deliver on those promises because our funding stream is tied to a depleted transient guest tax fund. Without revenue from hotel stays, there’s no money to administer the LCAC’s much-needed Community Art Grant program – a program whose mission is not tied to tourism but to supporting arts organizations and cultural opportunities for our residents. 

Without this money, we were unable to fund the Phoenix Awards to honor our local artists and have yet to open up the much-loved Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition for the second year in a row. The time is now to deliver on the programs that help rebuild our arts and culture scene and bring jobs and economic opportunities to our city. 

With COVID relief efforts vital to our arts organizations and artists, we must consider the stability of our funding and explore options for additional support. Lawrence is facing many challenges in recovering from the pandemic, and it should be recognized that the arts have the potential to be leveraged in innovative ways to problem-solve, adapt and propel various sectors forward. Other similar-sized cities have municipal artist-in-residence programs and involve artists in creative problem-solving endeavors from affordable housing to mental health. 

If outsiders like Ernst & Young can look at Lawrence and immediately see our potential, we owe it to ourselves not to turn a blind eye to the beauty in our backyard, but to seed it, water it and help it grow. 

— Marlo Angell (she/her) is an independent filmmaker, the New Media Director of the Lawrence Arts Center, the Director of the Free State Festival, co-founder of Women of Lawrence Film (WOLF) and a member of the city of Lawrence’s Cultural Arts Commission. Her most recent work includes a short film inspired by East Lawrence’s Wishing Bench and a documentary about the Mexican-American community of La Yarda in collaboration with Lourdes Kalusha-Aguirre. 

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