The Red State of the Arts

There is a long, and volatile, history between the arts and government in the U.S. The debate has raged for many years about the benefit of government subsidy to the arts. We all have seen the drastic changes to education based on the importance of art in public schools reaching record lows in recent years. For proponents, the arts are viewed as an economic stimulus while the opposition sees funding for the arts as a detractor from other important areas needing government funding.

Franklin D. Roosevelt saw the arts as a crucial aspect of building the economy after the Great Depression. He established the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935 as Part of the New Deal to give creative individuals more employment opportunities. Over the eight years the agency was in place (it was dissolved in 1943 because unemployment dropped exponentially in the wake of World War II) in employed millions of Americans. The art program, Federal Project No.1, employed over 40,000 artists in the first year alone, while setting up 100 art centers serving over 8 million people. Some of the well-known artists involved were Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock.

In 1965, the federal government created the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) as an independent agency to support and fund arts projects and organizations through a network of state agencies and organizations. The funding appropriations started in 1966 at about $3 million and rose to $175 million by the early 1990s. The ring-wing has regularly attempted to abolish the agency because of its support of controversial artists and claims that it is unimportant, wasteful, and elitist. During the Republican Revolution of 1994 Newt Gingrich led the attack to eliminate the NEA, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Public Broadcasting System. The attempt was unsuccessful but did result in major funding reductions ($65 million cut in 1996) and eliminated grants to individual artists. More recently the funding appropriations have been stable around $150 million per year.

Here in Arizona, we are now in the wake of multiple crises relating to government and the arts spearheaded by right –wing conservative and capitalist agendas. Most recently, newly elected Governor Doug Ducey (Rep) signed the state budget for fiscal year 2016 that cut the $1 million allocation that began in 2014 to the Arizona Commission on the Arts. The cuts came in light of a revelatory document produced by the Arizona Citizens for the Arts. The 2015 Arts Congress speaking points show the impact of the allocation over the past two years and what an increase in the allocation would provide the state economy. The claim is that the additional funding, derived from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, was not available due to budget balancing amidst a significant revenue shortfall.

View the AZ Citizens for the Arts 2015 Arts Congress talking points HERE

In 2014 and 2015 the additional funding was applied to all agency grant programs, including those for the individual artist and art businesses. According to the Arizona Commission on the Arts Director, Robert Booker, the cut may reduce the organizational funding to a 30-year low. Therefore, in order to protect priority public programs, there will be reductions in all areas of administration. Many of the initiatives meant for individual artists will be eliminated, and there will be less opportunity and more competition for the programs that remain. One might wonder if the elimination of these programs is strategic, instigating uproar from the individuals most affected. Mr. Booker does provide some optimism, though, stating that the agency is ambitiously working to map out a bold path for the arts in Arizona. We can only hope that there will be a heavy focus on fundraising activities and entrepreneurship programs for artists.

Read Mr. Booker’s statement yourself HERE

Shortly after the news of the budget cuts came the 2015 Governor’s Arts Awards, which recognize achievements in the state art community. In Governor Ducey’s introductory speech, he gave praise to the arts, a sector that generates $500 million in economic revenue plus millions in state taxes and employs 50,000 Arizonans. He made statements about how the arts are a “critical part of building our future” and that art “enriches communities” and “contributes to the economic health” of the state. Instead of use funding for the arts as an economic catalyst that could help balance and even improve the budget he supported drastically reducing the support for the sector. As one could imagine, the speech and his claims were met with respectful, but unenthusiastic applause as people thought about the contradiction between his words and his actions. But what did we expect from a man who has an insignificant political background and built a reputation as an ethically questionable businessman? That is red state politics at its best folks.

Downtown Phoenix businesses have been at war with the city government in the last few years due to capital support for gentrification and wrong-fit infill projects in the arts districts, such as age and income restricted housing along Roosevelt Street (wouldn’t all the noise complaint calls be exciting on a First Friday?). Gentrification is nothing new to arts districts. It is a typical cycle in large cities. Dilapidated areas invite artists because of the low-cost for living and studio spaces, which then brings other creative businesses and galleries to the area. An arts district is formed and becomes the place to be, which inspires developers to cash in on the neighborhood’s popularity with the young and hip. Before you know it, you have nothing left but luxury condos and retail chains, and the artists have all but disappeared.

But, in Phoenix this could signify the end of the local arts community. The focus on Roosevelt seems to be on high-end live/work spaces, which will not only push out the artists, but also many other low-income residents. The authenticity of the neighborhood is also in danger, with many significant buildings being razed to make room for contemporary high rises. Business owners have voiced their concerns for a few years now, and the Roosevelt Row organization seems to go back and forth over which side to support to create a stable neighborhood. The outlook is intriguing, it is an area that can use some upgrades and there are certain types of infill that will work well in the district. The main issue is that the city and the developers have no concern with those who are already there or what types of projects will work best in the area. We hope to see some adaptive re-use projects that incorporate the need for affordable housing and studio space for artists as well as low-rent commercial spaces for the galleries that focus on early-career local artists. There is plenty of room for that along with spaces to invite high-end galleries as well as money-makers who can afford to buy luxury condos and buy local art to fill them. It should be a diverse community that supports itself. The fear is that it will take the look of Mill Ave in Tempe and push out the culture that we experienced around ASU in the early 2000s.

At this point, gentrification may be inevitable on Roosevelt, it has sprung up just in the last 5 or 6 years without any foresight to confront the looming capitalist invasion. We must note, development is not bad, but there will be more compromise from the local businesses in order to create the inclusive neighborhood it should be. So, we hope to see those who can fight the good fight, but in the end the businesses have to focus on building their sustainability. On the other side of downtown, Grand Ave. took steps to protect its authenticity long ago. Key merchants, like Beatrice Moore, made sure to work to zone the neighborhood in light of potential influx so that affordable live/work spaces will hopefully remain in the surrounding area. Because of the efforts of Moore and the Grand Ave. Merchants Association we won’t be seeing any high rises in this walkable district and as it continues to grow and gain recognition it can definitely flourish. The next step is to attract more artists and galleries while marketing the businesses to a broad audience. Maybe displaced businesses will move from Roosevelt to Grand, and that will become the next hotspot, with protection of course.


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