Knoxville Arts, Culture Struggle with Funding

Early in May, County Mayor Mike Ragsdale presented a budget for 2010 that no longer includes the Knoxville Museum of Art or the Dogwood Arts Festival

According to Knoxville Museum of Art Executive Director David Butler, piloting an arts institution in Knoxville during a normal economy is tantamount to training for a recession.

“All of us at lean, smaller organizations always looked longingly at these organizations that had these huge endowments,” says Butler. “‘Gosh that must be nice, not having to worry about money.’ They’re the ones that are really hurting the most right now. They’ve watched 30 to 40 percent of those endowments disappear. They’re not used to making due with less than lavish funding. At KMA, we’re really good at that, as are most of the cultural organizations in town. We know how to stretch a dollar.”

As the recession creeps into its third quarter, arts and cultural organizations—groups typically funded by money considered “discretionary,” whether it comes from household, corporate, or government wallets—are shifting from a crisis-management mentality to a marathon mindset. This interrupted funding is not a glitch or spasm, it appears. This is the new reality. Early in May, County Mayor Mike Ragsdale presented a budget for 2010 that no longer includes the Knoxville Museum of Art or the Dogwood Arts Festival. In 2009, Dogwood Arts received $43,100 from the county, and KMA got $27,500. Knox County’s grant to Knoxville Symphony Orchestra went from $43,438 to $6,790. Ragsdale’s decision to wean arts and culture from government support comes at a time when private and corporate giving is also shrinking.

For arts and culture attractions in and around Knoxville, the new economy means pressure to craft and cultivate a new funding infrastructure. In press conferences, Ragsdale has suggested the collective fund-raising methods used successfully in cities like Chattanooga and Charlotte, what he refers to as a “United Way” model.

“We’re not there yet,” says Butler. “We’ve talked a lot about it. It’s a very hard thing to do successfully. I think that at the board level and staff level, all the arts organizations in town talk a lot and cooperate. We share information, we support one another. It would be a very big step to go from there to a United Way concept. It’s complicated. There’s a fear of loss of autonomy and control. In some communities it hasn’t worked.”

Another option is to imagine that Knoxville’s art and culture venues—the Bijou and Tennessee theatres, KMA, the University of Tennessee’s Ewing Gallery—help attract the out-of-towners who come to Knoxville and leave tax money behind. Might that contribution be quantified and redistributed? In San Francisco, for example, eight cents of every hotel/motel tax dollar collected funds grants for the arts.

Knoxville is not San Francisco. However, before becoming executive director of Knoxville’s Arts and Culture Alliance, Liza Zenni worked for years in the Bay Area theater scene. And it was Zenni who persuaded Knoxville Sports and Tourism Corporation to step up and provide stop-gap emergency grants to Alliance member groups endangered by the loss of county funding.

Zenni does not see a United Way-style arts-funding system in Knoxville’s immediate future.

“We have deep doubts about whether that is the best way or only way to attract and retain the commitment of resources that would allow our members to deliver their highest quality services to the community,” says Zenni. “I don’t know that that’s the best way. It works for some. We’re looking at a lot of different things.”

The Arts and Culture Alliance is primarily in the business of arts advocacy: helping people understand the value of what their members contribute to the community. Following an intensive study and stakeholder survey, the Alliance replaced The Knoxville Arts Council in 2001. It’s an independent non-profit, and not a city office. The Alliance organizes meetings and regular communications to educate and inform, and provides basics like access to a group health plan for studio artists and small member groups. It’s located in the 28,000 square-foot Emporium Center on North Gay Street, which belongs to David Dewhirst (and is leased by the city for $186,000 a year, which in turn leases the space to the Alliance for $1 a year).

While the Alliance does not actively raise funds currently, it is involved in the process of disbursing certain city and state funds. For 2010, city and state art funding are expected to stay at or near 2009 levels. (For the Tennessee Arts Commission, the Arts and Culture Alliance distributes funds collected via fees for vanity license plates, a source that has not suffered during the recession. Says Zenni: “We may be poor but we’re still proud.”) So if something like a tax-generated fund materialized, Zenni thinks the Alliance is well-situated to distribute that money.

“The Alliance already helps the city of Knoxville panel its grants to arts and heritage organizations,” she says. “Coming up on eight years, we’ve been distributing $160,000 of state money each year. That money comes through the Tennessee Arts Commission to the Cultural Alliance. We panel the grants and we distribute that grant money. There’s never been a problem with that, and we feel very equipped to handle it in that way should there become a pot of money that we could distribute that would benefit our members.”

Butler is on the board of the Arts and Culture Alliance. He’s aware that the smallest organizations are in the greatest danger at the moment. And he says they’re just as important as the bigger institutions.

“It’s kind of an ecosystem,” he says. “You can’t just have the big museum and nothing else. You need the private galleries; you need the smaller, kind of experimental spaces. You need a lot of diversity. You’ve got to have people buying art, you’ve got to have places to show art, you’ve got to have the institutional framework, which we get through the University of Tennessee and the KMA. We all kind of sink or swim together. We’re only as healthy as the smallest organization in the community.”

It would be a challenge for an arts entity to be smaller than the Actors Co-op. It’s the product of many talents and supporters and has a board of directors and 501(c)3 status. It also often simply goes by the name of Amy Hubbard, its founder and engine. Suffice it to say that the county budget loss did not shake the foundations of the Actors Co-op.

“We never got funding from the city or county anyway,” says Hubbard. “I had applied for it twice but we never got anything from it. However, we received funding from the Tennessee Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts. NEA even included out-of-town site visits from adjudicators. The adjudication included going through our administrative stuff as well as attending productions. It always amazed me that I could get a theater hotshot from California, funded by a federal organization, to come and see a show but never saw either of our mayors or other elected officials at our productions. I’m sure a few came here and there that I am unaware of. I reached out several years in a row but to little avail.

“In my opinion, the Arts and Culture Alliance has worked continuously to improve relations between smaller arts organizations and the government with some result. But it seems to me that government, especially local government, shouldn’t have to have their hand held to check out what their constituents are doing for the arts community, which benefits the entire community. One of the things that I have found so exhausting about running an arts organization in Knoxville is the continuous uphill battle to find funding and also to be acknowledged amid the larger organizations such as the opera, symphony, and museum. I support those organizations and attend them but they aren’t all that Knoxville has to offer.”

The Arts and Culture Alliance’s members run the gamut from individual artists to the institutions Hubbard mentions to smaller, more experimental groups like The Actors Co-op and A1 LabArts and Circle Modern Dance.

Butler and Zenni maintain that Knoxvillians should continue to be aware of how important their support is and that the arts are alive and well in Knoxville, but they depend more and more on memberships and private donations. As mentioned, the Arts and Culture Alliance is located in the Emporium on North Gay Street. The arts community survives primarily through personal, face-to-face communications. When construction began on the 100 block of Gay Street, Zenni says the Emporium’s First Friday traffic dropped from 2,500 to 500. So she urges Knoxvillians to do what she and her staff do every day: to tolerate and see beyond the barricades to the businesses and galleries that remain open and make that part of town worthy of new streets and sidewalks.

“The city of Knoxville planted the Emporium Center where it is to help revitalize the 100 block as the northern bookend of Gay Street,” says Zenni. “If there wasn’t a revitalization to be done, we wouldn’t have been put there. We fought like hell to try to postpone the work that’s going on on the 100 block. But they were convinced that those sidewalks were unstable, and that the work had to be done as soon as possible. We’ve accepted that. That’s our street. We’re committed to it. We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.”

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