Why the public should fund the arts, after all

(cross-post with nonprofiteer.net)

Had a fascinating conversation recently with Margy Waller, a special advisor to Cincinnati’s ArtsWave, which leads the nation in evidence-based approaches to advocating for arts funding.  Ms. Waller had reached out to correct my misunderstanding (and therefore misreporting) of ArtsWave’s efforts, noting that the argument is not that the public should fund the arts to promote economic recovery but that it should fund the arts to promote neighborhood vibrancy.  This nuance turns out to make all the difference.

Here’s the ArtsWave insight: people are ready enough to agree with the notion that the arts are good for the economy.  But if you probe deeper, and ask what top three things we should do to improve the economy, no one answers “subsidize the arts.”  So apparently the argument that the arts are an economic engine (true or false) is unpersuasive, which is what really matters.

But the ArtsWave research also uncovered the fact that if you ask people what would improve their neighborhood the most, the arts come up time and time again.  Why?  Because artists’ residences are known to herald an improvement in real-estate values; because arts audiences mean feet on the street and therefore greater public safety; because arts venues are known to spawn coffee shops and restaurants and other places of urban liveliness.

Therefore, the argument for public funding needs to be focused not on the art but on the public benefits of art-making.  This simultaneously ends the unwinnable argument about whether x or y is valid art or a useful expenditure of public funds and reminds people of what they believe anyway, that investment in arts-related infrastructure benefits everyone—not in some airy-fairy, soul-stirring, life-improving sense but in the grossest day-to-day experience of quality of life.

Thus an appeal to provide tax breaks to bring artists to a particular area would be framed not as a subsidy to these all-important art-making beings (read: overprivileged white people who ought to get jobs) but as a way to offset (maybe even reverse) the damage to property values wrought by foreclosures.  The subsidy is to the value of private property (something that can be monetized) rather than to the value of art (something that cannot).

As instrumental and cold-blooded as this approach may seem, Ms. Waller makes the powerful point that vibrancy is what people love about the arts—and that weaving the arts into the fabric of other social needs and activities enables people to appreciate the arts “not as consumers but as citizens.”

That last point is particularly powerful.  Asked what citizens should do to respond to 9/11, then-President Bush had nothing more to offer than, “Go shopping.”  Anything that enables us to respond to public concerns in a public spirit; anything that combats the notion that government is the problem and privatization the solution; anything that reminds us that we’re a republic if we can keep it; anything that illustrates we don’t have to buy something to value it—any of these is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

As a wise person once noted, the important thing is not to have BEEN right, but to BE right.  I’ve been wrong in my blanket condemnation of public funding for the arts, because I thought of it exclusively in the frame established by its opponents: as subsidies to artists to create what might or might not actually be valuable.  Once the framing shifts to “vibrancy,”* and to concrete benefits to the broader society, public arts support suddenly makes sense.  No one else may care, but what a relief to me!  I get to stop being the only left-wing theater critic in the country opposed to public funding for the arts.

I continue to think that the NEA itself is a lost cause and that energy spent defending it would be better spent squeezing support for the arts out of HUD, Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac and local housing authorities.  But that’s a matter of strategy.  As a matter of principle, I’m grateful to have discovered a valid way to defend taxpayer support to something that matters so much to me.

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*Yes, “vibrancy” can be a euphemism for “gentrification,” or at least its prodroma.  But if we plan for vibrancy (instead of simply hoping that lightening strikes in this ‘hood or that), we can also plan to prevent displacement.  And without displacement, “gentrification” is just another word for “safe streets, amenities and public services”—for everyone, rich or poor.

Illinois and the amazing disappearing property tax exemption

When Harold Pollack wrote about the recent Illinois Department of Revenue decision to withdraw property tax exemptions from three hospitals, he naturally focused on the impact of the decision on health care.  But those of us who work in other areas of the nonprofit sector are worried by the decision as well–or, if we aren’t, we ought to be.

Though the Revenue Department’s ruling and the Supreme Court decision on which it was based both concern hospitals, there are now working their way through the Illinois court system a pair of cases challenging the property tax exemptions of luxury retirement communities.  The plaintiffs are taxing districts which would otherwise be collecting big bucks from the communities, one of which is located on prime Chicago Gold Coast real estate–just around the corner, as it happens, from Northwestern’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, which will now (barring court intervention) have to pay property taxes on its equally valuable swath of land.  Lower courts have already ruled both retirement facilities unworthy of property tax exemption, and lawyers involved in both cases expect victory in the face of appeal based on the precedent of the hospital cases.

So what’s really going on here?  Certainly withdrawing tax exemptions from wealthy organizations sitting on expensive land makes sense from the standpoint of municipal budgets, which here as elsewhere are stretched beyond breaking.  So the Illinois Department of Revenue is following Willie Sutton’s [apocryphal] advice to go where the money is.

But what the Illinois Supreme Court has now said is that there are only three categories of tax-exempt real property under the Illinois Constitution: schools, churches and “charities.”  Further, the Court said, a “charity” is not simply any nonprofit organization, or even any nonprofit organization entitled to 501(c)(3) status and tax-deductible donations under the Internal Revenue Code.  A “charity” for Illinois property tax purposes is an agency that gives things away.  How many things?  Worth how much?  This remains unclear: perhaps a “charity,” like “pornography,” is simply something a court knows when it sees it.

And if the question is, “Are you a charity?” will the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago be able to pass muster?  Will the Museum of Contemporary Art?  Will the Lookingglass Theater?  All three are located within spitting distance of the now-taxable hospital and retirement home.  So they’re likely targets for the next round of investigations.  What do they give away?  Worth how much?

(Just to confuse things even further: the Illinois constitutional standard is that only church property used for religious purposes is exempt; supplementary holdings are not.  I’m not aware of a parallel ruling about schools, but would expect the same standard to apply.  So if a charity owns property not used for charitable purposes–like, oh, vacant property the YMCA may someday use as a camp–will that be taxable?  If so, then it’s not even enough to be a charity–you have to be doing charity.)

As a consultant to charities, I’m supposed to be jumping up and down and screaming about this terrible precedent; but actually I’m not.  It’s long past time for us to ask the question whether arts organizations are genuinely charities.  (I’d ask the same question about well-endowed educational institutions and churches, but the Illinois Constitution prevents me from getting any reward for doing so.)  My only concern is how unaware nonprofit executives and Board members seem to be of the implications of these decisions.  Asked about her agency’s risk of having its property taxed, one executive dismissed the issue: “We’re a nonprofit–everything we do is charitable.”

Well, no.

This argument is playing out around the country.  What’s unique about Illinois is that the discussion is taking place in the courts rather than the legislature or the city council.  This interferes with any effort by nonprofits to rouse public opinion–or even themselves–in defense of their privileges.  Instead, the property tax exemption is going the way of the Cheshire Cat, bit by bit until there’s nothing left but the smile.

Let the Illinois nonprofit beware.

Blinding-flash-of-the-obvious Dep’t: Crime and social capital

“Social capital” can refer either to an individual’s relational and reputational assets or to the collective efficacy of a neighborhood, group, or organization: roughly speaking, its capacity to get its members to contribute resources or effort for collective purposes (that is, to make public contributions to the public goods of that collectivity).

Financial assets and transactions are far easier to measure than social assets and the processes that produce and destroy them. But that doesn’t mean financial matters are more important. Policy analysts in particular need to pay more attention to social assets and processes, and to the distribution of social as well as financial resources.

Application to crime control policy:

At the individual level, having a habit or law-breaking and/or an official criminal record, or a group of friends and acquiantances with such characteristics, constitutes a negative relational/reputational asset.

At the collective level, a high crime rate by, against, or (especially) within a group saps collective efficacy and therefore constitutes negative group social capital.

Moreover, good or bad behavior by anyone with a given social identity tends to rub off on the reputations of others who share that identity: that’s the phenomenon called “reputational externality.” Crime is an important source of negative reputational externalities.