Arts budget battle forces city's Cultural Affairs director to seek private donations

COLUMBIA, 9/3/12 (Beat Byte) -- City Hall is failing an important test of values and commitment:  putting your money where your mouth is

Despite taking credit for prioritizing an important Columbia value -- the Arts -- city administrators are now citing "depleted funds, shrinking budgets and grant money reductions" as they shift responsibility to fund art projects to private sector donors, the Columbia Missourian has reported.  It's all part of an arts budget battle brewing beneath the surface that started erupting last January. 

Compared to the over $60 million City Hall has spent on lavish building additions, renovations, and parking garages over the last 7 years, arts funding is a proverbial drop in the bucket.   Private donations shouldn't be necessary. 

Serving two masters

The private sector shift has put Office of Cultural Affairs director Chris Stevens -- who told the Missourian he "came up with the idea of a local arts foundation" -- in a dual role serving two masters -- donors and taxpayers.   As private sector development officer and public sector department director, Stevens will be under pressure to raise private money.  

The awkward positioning reminds of REDI -- both privately-funded business lobby and publicly-funded city department.   It puts private money in the hands of public administrators, opening the door to the same conflicts of interest that have plagued REDI.

But more importantly to local artists, it threatens to de-prioritize what little, hard-fought public arts funding Columbia enjoys, relying instead on uncertain donations, which -- in the ultra-competitive world of donor-supported non-profits -- have never proven a strong source of local arts funding.  

Great CoMo Arts Budget Battle

The Great CoMo Arts Budget Battle kicked off publicly in January, when protests about inadequate funding for a garage art project prompted city administrators to increase it by $13,000.  

Last month, a storm drain mural project had the public works department shamelessly mooching from the art community, well-known for financial struggles.   City Hall declined to pay nine artists for the murals, instead seeking donated time and materials

Meanwhile, City Hall administrators have approved multi-million dollar expenditures on the infamous 10-story parking garage known as Garagezilla; a sister garage on Short Street known as Garagezilla, Jr.; a $30 million addition to the Daniel Boone city hall building; and millions more on renovating buildings that house the municipal court, health, and parks departments.

The 7-year building spree has cost taxpayers over $60 million -- and rising.

Originally budgeted at $8.5 million, Garagezilla, Jr. is now expected to cost $12.3 -- a $4 million overage.    Council members consented to the overage at their July 2 meeting.

Shaky foundation

Now, city administrators say they struggled with $96,000 in artwork expenses and need "admin fees" to oversee a new privately-funded, city-administered "arts foundation" they hope will invest in stocks and bonds.  

Such a foundation should start -- and stay -- entirely private.  It should supplement, rather than replace, public arts funding.  It should not commingle assets and duties with City Hall. 

As it stands, the move is a revealing test of priorities and commitment fraught with financial uncertainty.   CoMo's nascent arts renaissance -- which has catalyzed an astonishing turnaround of virtually the entire downtown and surrounding neighborhoods -- still needs stability.