Posted by David Fischer, Jan 31, 2019

Last November’s mid-term election resulted in significant political victories for the supporters of arts and culture as a tide of pro-arts ballot measures successfully passed in the western cities of San Francisco, Tempe, Culver City, and Tacoma. As co-chair of the Washington state effort to create enabling legislation and, later, co-chair of the campaign in Tacoma, I believe the lessons from these successes bode well for future, similar efforts in other communities across the country.

Tacoma, WA (population 212,000) is a thriving community in part because of its cultural vibrancy. Beginning in 1983, with the renewal of its Historic Theater District, then culminating through 2012 with investments that created a new museum district with six venues, Tacoma has seen its cultural economy grow. According to Americans for the Arts’ economic survey in 2016, Tacoma’s cultural sector generated more than $137 million in economic activity, supporting almost 4,000 jobs. Arguably, Tacoma’s brand today is as much centered on its cultural life as it is almost any other sector of its economy. In fact, Expedia named Tacoma the best arts city in the country last year.

It is this brand equity that energized a group of culture leaders to plan for making a request of voters to tax themselves. Thanks to a 2015 Washington state law, communities statewide had a new mechanism to create a “cultural access tax,” if City Councils voted to place the issue on the ballot.

By late 2015, Tacoma planners organized around two key intentions — the desire that future funding enable at a “hyper-local level” (in schools and neighborhoods), and that the cultural sector be a catalyst for strengthening social cohesion. All of this was rooted in the simple but powerful ideas that no one should be denied access to arts and culture programs, and that civic life is made stronger when we engage together in cultural programs. Community conversations began in every neighborhood asking, “What would be important for you, your children, your business?”

Advocacy efforts with the Tacoma City Council began the during the fall 2017 campaign cycle that saw the election of several City Council members and a new mayor. At a forum hosted by the culture sector, each candidate formally committed to vote “yes” on the idea of allowing voters to decide on a tax measure. By January 2018, results from a favorable poll also bolstered the early effort to continue; however, the poll also signaled the challenges ahead, as about half of those interviewed stated they were only a “soft” yes and could easily be swayed.

In spring 2018, after the new City Council was installed, planners worked with their civic representatives on the initiative that ultimately proposed the following:

  • Tacoma voters would increase sales tax by one-tenth of one percent, or a penny on $10, to create an annual fund of approximately $5 million.
  • The average Tacoma household would pay approximately 25 cents a week.
  • Grants equal to 78% of collections would be distributed to arts, heritage, and science nonprofits to meet three service areas:
    • After-school programs for extended learning
    • Neighborhood activation with programs in senior centers, parks, and in partnership with local business districts to energize street fairs and special events
    • Expanded access for Tacomans to enjoy free or reduced-price access to the great events offered by local culture providers
  • Nonprofits with a minimum of two years of proven service could apply for funding between $50,000 and $400,000 through project grants or annual operating support, if agencies met significant standards in meeting program intentions and numbers served.
  • Administration, capped at 8%, leveraging the existing city staff at the Office of Cultural Vitality.
  • Public transit fund of 8%, as part of a coalition of funding support for youth mobility.
  • Technical assistance training fund at 6% for cultural nonprofits with special emphasis on diversity, inclusion, and equity, as well as improving capacities in marketing, communications, fundraising, finance, and general nonprofit administration.

A broad political coalition of educators, open space advocates, business leaders, and social service providers organized alongside the arts and culture sector to support City Council advocacy efforts and the political campaign that followed. Due to the early efforts of supporters to educate elected policy makers, in June 2018 Tacoma City Council voted unanimously to place the proposal on the ballot.

Local cultural nonprofits invested their own operating funds for the campaign, and engaged their trustees along with individual and corporate donors. Such campaign funding allowed the grassroots effort to expand its team to include a campaign manager, communications experts, and volunteers. The team deployed and conducted more neighborhood forums, social media outreach, direct mail, sign waving, doorbelling, and many other means of outreach. Despite the nay-sayers declaring the proposition dead for myriad reasons — “wrong time,” “wrong priority,” “taxes too high,” “only the privileged will benefit” — the team never gave up, and continued with their voter education and outreach efforts.

On November 6, 2018, Tacoma’s Proposition 1 passed with an unprecedented 67.2%. Maybe more impressive is that the measure passed in 100% of all 104 voting precincts in the City. Tacoma’s cultural leaders believe the great success was rooted in the proposition’s focus on neighborhood services, inclusivity, the development of a broad political coalition, its transparency and fairness, City Council leadership, and its modest cost to taxpayers. There are two further takeaways from Tacoma’s work that we believe ensured our success:

  • Broader social benefits not limited to major institutions, which reach out into the neighborhoods in an effort to strengthen social cohesion; and
  • partnerships that leverage existing assets and extend beyond the cultural community.

Perhaps Tacoma is a model for such cultural funding solutions, especially in mid-size and smaller markets. If so, we in Tacoma hope other cultural communities across the nation will be bold, build a smart proposal, make their case, and give voters a chance to show you how much they want cultural services!