The shocking death of the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre should not be viewed in isolation; it’s the latest case of a nasty strain of cultural influenza that’s hit the Inland Northwest over the past year. Interplayers and the Civic have been running high fevers; the Spokane Symphony had to call in sick for an entire month; the MAC continues to be quarantined over in Browne’s Addition; and the City of Spokane even pulled the plug on its Arts Commission. If this were a coal mine, we’d be running out of canaries.
For some reason, our cultural tradition here has been to let Darwin’s theories rule; arts organizations must pull themselves up by their bootstraps or go the way of the Dodo, we seem to think. This ignores the reality that the traditional arts funding paradigm — government funding, corporate underwriting — has also evolved.
But if you peek outside the confines of the Inland Northwest, you’ll see a different picture. Cities that recognize the value of a vibrant arts scene (proven by study after study) are providing a solid foundation for their institutions. In Seattle, they apply most of their admissions taxes to a cultural fund that local arts organizations can apply to for grants. In Denver and Salt Lake City, they have levied a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax on themselves to fund local arts.
In Salt Lake City, they call it ZAP — the Zoo, Arts and Parks Program. In 2011, $1.4 million was distributed to more than 150 organizations. When the tax last came up for approval, more than 70 percent of voters (in one of the most conservative states in the nation) supported it. In Washington, the notion of taxing yourself for the arts hasn’t yet been given the go-ahead in Olympia. Arts advocates, however, have been lobbying for the passage of the Cultural Access Fund, which would allow for a ZAP fund here.
Spokane and the Inland Northwest must realize that our arts scene is a fragile thing — so fragile, most grown-up cities have long ago abandoned the idea of leaving it to survival of the fittest. Then we need to strategize a better future, and getting behind the Cultural Access Fund is a no-brainer.
But how? Perhaps the Spokane Arts Fund can channel the energies of such a disparate group of individual artists and organizations. Haven’t heard of it? It was pulled out of mothballs just last year by City Council President Ben Stuckart to replace the city’s Arts Commission. Funded by the Downtown Spokane Partnership, the Public Facilities District and Visit Spokane, the Arts Fund’s newly hired executive director, Shannon Roach, will join longtime local arts advocate Karen Mobley there in a couple weeks. It’s good timing, as we need to get our arts scene back in good health.