Arts and Culture Alliance Proposes Fee for Funding Local Groups

Last spring, Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale's 2010 budget sent shock waves through Knoxville's arts community. Arts organizations big and small saw county funding slashed by huge percentages—or, in the case of the Knoxville Museum of Art and the Dogwood Arts Festival, eliminated entirely.

The Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corporation eventually stepped up with a stop-gap donation of $185,000—all of it from county hotel/motel tax revenue, and with Ragsdale's blessing—to those organizations whose funding had been cut out entirely. But the incident was a frightening wake-up call for cultural organizations already struggling through a battered economy where private donations are dropping and endowments are shriveling. KTSC won't be able to supplement the county's spending again this year, but no one expects the county's contributions to nonprofits to go up, either. Knox County cut its nonprofit grants program from $3.1 million in 2008 to $2 million in 2009 and just $1 million for 2010.

"I think it was a near-death experience for me," says Liza Zenni, executive director of the Arts and Culture Alliance, an umbrella organization that represents and promotes more than 80 local arts groups (and dozens of individual artists) and distributes funding from the Tennessee Arts Commission.

In response to last year's funding crisis, Zenni is working with Ragsdale and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam on a plan that would dedicate one cent of every $100 of property-tax revenue in the city and county toward the arts. No organization or individual artist would be guaranteed any money from year to year—they'd have to apply for any grants from the city and county. But the plan would establish a large source of money that would be available every year.

"It would be a tremendous show of support from the entire community if we could accomplish this," says Knoxville Opera Company Executive Director and Conductor Brian Salesky. "It wouldn't diminish our fund-raising challenges. What it would do is make the identity of our source-stream count-on-able."

As far as local arts initiatives go, it's small compared to some other cities. And, as Zenni points out, it's not new spending or a tax increase. But it's an ambitious plan around here, the first of its kind in Knoxville to essentially guarantee local arts-and-culture funding from one year to the next. Those guarantees, Zenni says, are essential not only to keep arts groups afloat financially but also to give them some measure of creative freedom.

"It's a climate of scarcity for everybody," Zenni says. "You get so fearful that you'll lose the little bit that you get that you go a little crazy. You've got to be able to do something that helps stabilize the organizations from one year to the next, that gives them some scintilla of assurance that they're going to have X funds next year. Without that, weird things happen to an organization. You say to yourself, "We better do A Christmas Carol or we're gonna close!'"

So far the plan is "a work in progress," according to Ragsdale's chief administrative officer, Dwight Van de Vate. Zenni says she hopes to make a formal announcement of the mayors' agreement later this month. Any budget proposals from either mayor's office with the one-cent designation would then need approval from City Council or County Commission.

Rachel Ford, executive director of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, says the plan has already had a unifying effect on the groups working to make it happen.

"Anybody would say we're very excited about what this represents," she says. "But it's not only the revenue stream it represents for all of us. You see a lot of arts groups working together on this, and I don't know that that's always been the case."

To ease any potential political fights and offer something tangible in return for the committed funding, the Arts and Culture Alliance will require that any of its member organizations who apply for city or county grants offer some sort of free programming for local students.

"If you can give us a penny of property tax in the city, and if the county almost hits the $400,000 they've been giving, which would be just about one penny on every $100 of property tax, here's what we're going to do," Zenni says. "We'll get all our members together and every person who applies for these funds to commit, at least once in the academic year from July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011, to open their doors to the children of the Knox County School System for free."

Students will be able to participate in the program with a More to Knoxville card, part of a new marketing initiative by the Arts and Culture Alliance (visit