"The Show Must Go On?": Reflections on the Funding of Culture in Milwaukee

Mar. 23, 2014
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Major decisions concerning the presence and vitality of the arts in Milwaukee are afoot.

The Spirit of Milwaukee ("A 501(c)3 private non-profit corporation whose mission is to educate the public, both locally and nationally, about greater Milwaukee's many cultural, educational, historical and scientific institutions.") has commissioned a report by the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, The Public Policy Forum to assess the financial situation and needs of Milwaukee's cultural organizations.

The report, costing $42,200 and irresolutely entitled "The Show Must Go On?", takes its orientation from five funding models utilized by various metropolitan areas across the country. The possible approaches all focus on different tax sources (namely, sales and use tax, cigarette tax, property tax). 

Quoted here are the four hypothetical approaches outlined in the report:

"A supplemental funding approach could be pursued if the objective is narrowly geared toward addressing immediate basic operating and/or capital needs of arts and cultural institutions and parks, while leaving existing funding structures largely in place and deferring on the issue of a new arena or expanded convention center. The report’s modeling indicates that a 30-cent-per-pack cigarette tax or .1% (one-tenth-of-a-cent) sales tax could generate about $120 million over 10 years in Milwaukee County to support this objective."

"A high-quality public assets approach could be pursued if the objective is to maintain quality and accessibility only for major publicly-owned arts and cultural assets by providing them with dedicated funding that would eliminate their need to compete for resources with other government functions. The report’s modeling shows that a dedicated property tax mill rate of $1.32 per $1,000 of equalized value in Milwaukee County could support that objective."

"A major capital projects approach could be pursued if the objective is oriented toward financing major capital improvements that hold potential for boosting the region’s image, enhancing tourism, and attracting and retaining talent. The report’s modeling suggests that a .7% (seven-tenths-of-a-cent) sales tax for eight years in Milwaukee County (or a lesser amount if applied regionally) could generate a $692 million package of such improvements in Milwaukee, including a new arena and expanded convention center."

"A comprehensive tiered approach could be pursued if the objective is to reform local government finance and structure by permanently replacing a portion of the county property tax levy with a dedicated county or regional sales tax for the publicly-owned parks and cultural institutions. This approach also could be constructed to support debt service on a new arena and expanded convention center, and annual grants for the broad array of other arts and cultural entities. The report’s modeling shows that such an approach would require a permanent sales tax of about .75% (three-quarters-of-a-cent) in Milwaukee County and .35% if applied to the five-county Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District region."

It should be noted that the Public Policy Forum does not compare the options to one another. Instead, each approach is presented with respect to its unique merits. The decision making process, then, depends on more fundamental questions:

-Is the status quo sufficient and, therefore, to be maintained (supplemental funding approach)? 

-What is the role of arts and cultural institutions in Milwaukee's quality of life? Should they be funded in such a way so as to promote their flourishing primarily on a local level (high-quality public assets approach)?

-How do Milwaukee's arts and cultural institutions affect the way that the city is viewed by the outside world (e.g. promoting the creation of new businesses; drawing in potential tourists, residents, entrepreneurs, artists, etc.)? Should cultural funding be geared towards enhancing the image Milwaukee presents to the world (major capital projects approach)? 

-Is the way that Milwaukee funds its cultural institutions in need of significant reform? Should there be a dedicated county or regional sales tax (comprehensive tiered approach)? 

Given the importance of these deliberations, MKE art will be returning to the subject in weeks to come. In the meantime, get to reflecting. What, after all, is the role of culture in the health, vitality, and fiscal life of a city?

More information concerning "The Show Must Go On?" can be found here.


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