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Lawrence City Commission candidates weigh in on funding the arts at community forum

Although candidates for Lawrence City Commission agreed that arts assets are a crucial part of the community’s culture, their attitudes toward what more stable funding for the arts would look like differed at the Arts, Culture & Creative Industries forum on Saturday.  

City funding for arts and culture programs in Lawrence currently comes from the transient guest tax, which relies on visitors and therefore has taken a hit because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, the tax funds a competitive grant program, so it isn’t a reliable source of support for arts programs from year to year.

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Moderator Deanell Reece Tacha — a former judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit — said the arts are more than the buildings they operate in; they rely on human capital as well. Plus, she said the transient guest tax relies on “sporadic and very varied” money that all comes from outside the city, depending on what activities are going on. She asked the candidates how they might visualize a more “normalized” means for the city to fund the arts. 

Lisa Larsen was the first to answer, saying that the question did not have one “silver bullet” answer but requires a lot of analysis. The city’s general fund goes toward hundreds of programs and is subject to change based on the community’s financial standing each year, she said, and pulling funding from one of those to put it toward the arts would take careful consideration. 

“It’s always open for discussion, as far as I’m concerned,” Larsen said. “But we need to make sure we understand the whole picture before we make a decision as to how to do that.” 

Milton Scott answered next, agreeing that creating a more stable means of funding for arts will take careful analysis of the budget. He noted that the arts provide an important resource to many members of the community and said that more of those community members should be invited to participate in visualizing what funding looks like.  

“If we can bring more individuals to the table and can tap into those resources, that’s going to help us look at how we can do matching funds as a city,” Scott said.  

Ma’Ko’Quah Jones noted that the arts organizations provide social programs as well, which she said her family has benefitted from. As an advocate for sustainability, she said conserving the city’s energy costs by looking into renewable energy could be a step toward putting more money into programs that need it — such as arts programs.  

“I can’t wait to get to the City Commission so we can look at more opportunities for this,” she said. “If we start looking at energy conservation measures, then all of that contributes going back into arts and culture.”  

As a current commissioner, Stuart Boley said he’s watched the transient guest tax fund closely for years and is glad to see it building back up. He said the city has “taken a load off” of the Lawrence Arts Center through financially supporting the building’s operation, and that donors who can provide additional resources are an important part of the human capital that the arts require. 

“The city relies heavily on a very regressive sales tax,” Boley said. “It’s really important to have your donors provide resources for the human capital because if we simply do it with our regressive taxes, it’s really hard on the poorest of the poor in our community. Having that balance between the actual individual donors and the organizations that contribute, that’s a very significant portion of our arts funding that needs to also be recognized.”  

Bart Littlejohn said this is a conversation he looks forward to and that he understands the volatility of the guest tax. It would take a deeper dive into the budget, he said, but finding a more consistent means of funding the arts is an important part of supporting the community.  

“It might take us being a little bit more creative,” he said. “It might take us being a little bit more involved, and a little bit more of diving into the weeds on it. But I’m willing to do that work and I’m willing to go ahead and solicit all of your input as well.”  

Amber Sellers was the last to answer, and her response drew applause from the audience. She began by stating that a “wise community member” once told her that if art isn’t public, it is exclusionary. She said that some of the other candidates’ remarks regarding the city’s financial support of the Lawrence Arts Center building spoke to that sentiment. She said the arts are not a burden, and it seemed that other candidates who spoke about giving the arts center its building space were taking that tone.

“The Arts Center is not just a value add to the experience of living in Lawrence,” Sellers said. “It’s in the heart and it’s in the DNA of this community. If that’s what makes us ‘unmistakable,’ then we need to do a better job with making sure that we keep it that way.” 

The Lawrence Arts Center’s co-hosts for the forum included Art Emergency, Cider Gallery, eXplore Lawrence, Gould Evans, the Lawrence Art Guild, The Percolator, Raven Book Store, Theatre Lawrence, SeedCo Studios, Spencer Museum of Art, Van Go Inc., Watkins Museum of History, Wonder Fair and The Lawrence Times.

The whole forum is available to view at this link and below:

The general election is Tuesday, Nov. 2. Check this page for important election dates and information, and check this page for more forum coverage.

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