The Oregon Historical Society (OHS) surprised me, at least, on Friday when they announced that they'll be aiming to put a five-year $10 million bond measure on the Multnomah County ballot in November. I have to wonder how asking voters to pony up to save this cultural institution will affect the arts funding measure that's been building support for a run at the 2011 ballot.
The Creative Advocacy Network (CAN) has been working for years to craft a ballot measure asking voters to approve a dedicated funding pot of $15-20 million annually for supporting regional arts and culture. Guerilla artists took the streets at First Thursday this month to raise awareness of the plan, but that's just the tip of the iceberg: CAN decided to go after the 2011 bond after two round of polling, months of meeting that gathered input from 645 citizens as well as over 90 leaders in arts, business and politics. Their polling in 2009 (pdf) showed 70 percent of locals would support paying $1 a month to support the arts.
CAN made a calculated choice not to push for any arts tax on the 2010 ballot, but now OHS is heading to the ballot in a moment of crisis. While keeping the doors of the state history museum open is a very worthy cause, it's not going to be an easy sell to voters.
First of all, while CAN is staging a years-long campaign to build support for always-controversial arts funding, OHS has only two months to convince voters. Their measure is being pitched at the final hour, as a desperate last resort after meetings with the state legislature showed the museum and library's funding will not be renewed this year, meaning they will likely run out of cash and have to close the doors of the state history museum in spring.
Even if they DO run a great campaign, a couple things weaken their chances at success. First of all, with the recession, all new taxes are in for a tough fight (city commissioner Nick Fish canned a proposed parks levy last spring for this reason) and the cultural tax will be competing for voters' attention (and dollars) with two much more nuts-and-bolts measures, one to replace aging equipment at the fire department and another to replace TriMet's old buses and disability-unfriendly facilities. On top of that, tax critics will find plenty of pick on at the historical society, including that they paid Executive Director George Vogt $195, 899 in 2008.
Looking at the political landscape, CAN made the practical choice to not push an arts fund on this November's ballot. CAN Executive Director Jessica Jarratt said that choice stems from the belief that voters are "pretty traumatized" by the recession and the divisive debate over Measures 66 and 67. "It's pretty important to be judged on our own merits," says Jarratt. "Any new tax at this time would look bad. What we found is that we might be fighting a fight about taxes in general instead of, 'Is supporting the arts worth an extra dollar a month?'"
Though Jarratt is upbeat that voters will weigh the OHS and CAN measures separately, it's not a long shot to believe that no matter which way the vote goes for the historical society, having a debate about crisis funding for a cultural institution this year could hurt CAN's chances at arts funding next year. If it passes, voters could be tired of approving tax increases to fund culture. If it doesn't, people who voted no this year on a tax increase for culture could see CAN's initiative next year and remember, "Oh, yeah, I voted this down last year, too."