Spokane's arts-funding mechanism hit a speed bump during the pandemic, but is still making important contributions to the local cultural scene

click to enlarge Spokane's arts-funding mechanism hit a speed bump during the pandemic, but is still making important contributions to the local cultural scene
Courtesy photo
Lisa Soranaka and Mallory Battista will use SAGA funding to build a mosaic sculpture in the Emerson-Garfield neighborhood.

As we approach National Arts and Humanities month in October, there's a lot to celebrate. An impressive array of arts and cultural events and programs across many disciplines has come back to life since the pandemic — some of which have been supported by the Spokane Arts Grant Awards (SAGA), the grants program administered by Spokane Arts.

At this point in the year, Spokane Arts has awarded two rounds of funding, with the next application deadline coming Oct. 1. SAGA funds a mix of organizations, collectives and individual projects, with a requirement to show community impact. Investing even a tiny amount in arts and cultural events led to more ticketed events, which increased the admissions tax base, in turn increasing the amount available to grant the following year. The investment worked.

But the pandemic hangover is still in effect: COVID impacts have a very long tail. The admissions tax has a delayed distribution, which means the portion of 2020 revenue earmarked for the arts — $176,625 for the entire city — is what's available to fund arts and culture projects in 2022.

Consider that the small amount dedicated to supporting arts and culture here represents an expenditure of 80 cents per resident per year in 2022. Eighty cents! In the second-largest city in the state and in the cultural hub of our region. As a point of comparison, our city police department receives $68 million from the city's general fund, along with other earmarks and revenue sources.

To be fair, the city of Spokane has earmarked roughly 2 percent of their one-time American Rescue Plan funding received from the federal government toward supporting cultural festivals citywide and employment in the arts, but the vast majority of that one-time relief funding has not been distributed yet.

The funding source for the Spokane Arts Grant Awards is defined by ordinance: One-third of the city's collected admissions tax each year is earmarked to support arts and culture activities. The admissions tax is collected at in-person, ticketed events, including many theater productions, concerts, movie theaters, festivals and other types of arts and entertainment. Beginning in 2016, when the city began investing a portion of that tax to create the SAGA program, collected admissions tax had been growing steadily each year, from 12 percent to 17 percent over the prior year. Then the pandemic hit, and in 2020, collected admissions taxes dropped by 55 percent. And in 2021, even as vaccines allowed certain events to resume, admissions tax collections were still down by nearly 20 percent compared to 2019.

Arts, culture and creativity not only make our city a more healthy, attractive, welcoming, livable place, benefiting the hearts and minds of community members, but those things also make economic sense. According to Americans for the Arts, every dollar spent on admission to a cultural event generates $32 in the local economy. Investing in arts and culture is simultaneously investing in tourism, education, community wellness and mental health. We don't need to have a scarcity mindset. We can fund a wide range of community needs while also thoughtfully investing in arts, culture and film. Even tiny investments — SAGA's average grant size is roughly $5,000 — can yield big results.

There's no better testament to the impact of SAGA seed funding than the accomplishments of the grantees themselves, so in the spirit of celebration and gratitude, here are a few updates on what our grantees are up to:

MY TURN THEATER provides the tools, opportunity and support for adults of varying abilities to experience the camaraderie and sense of achievement found in performance theater. One of only a dozen theaters of its kind in the United States, SAGA funding supported My Turn's first Spokane performance, Guys and Dolls.

Local artists LISA SORANAKA and MALLORY BATTISTA will use SAGA funding to enliven their neighborhood, building a large mosaic sculpture to be installed at the base of the Monroe Street hill in the Emerson-Garfield neighborhood. The sculpture will feature the sun, clouds and a rainbow, which the artists call "universal images of positivity and hope," and will incorporate hundreds of tiles made by community members at free workshops.

Musical duo THE SMOKES recently received funding to offer youth songwriting workshops, including an explanation of their songwriting process and a focus on improvisation and incorporating personal experiences into art.

In the world of literature, not one but two SAGA grantees were named as finalists for the 2022 Washington State Book Award: KATHRYN SMITH was nominated for her poetry collection Self-Portrait with Cephalopod while KATE LEBO's The Book of Difficult Fruit took home the blue ribbon in the creative nonfiction category. Another grantee, CHELSEA MARTIN, published her novel Tell Me I'm An Artist, a project directly supported by SAGA funding, which received a starred review in Kirkus.

Past SAGA grantee CHASE OGDEN's documentary Super Frenchie, after a 2020 run on the festival circuit, recently had its national TV debut on Nat Geo.

Spokane Tribe member RYAN ABRAHAMSON used SAGA funding to create a short film — a supernatural pre-colonial thriller, no less — filmed on tribal lands, in period costume, and with all dialogue in Salish. Strongest at the End of the World will debut at the Spokane International Film Festival, and Abrahamson hopes to gain enough momentum to produce a full-length feature.

And photographer ARI NORDHAGEN is working on The Spokane Cookbook, which pairs interviews with local chefs, recipes and gorgeous photos to highlight the unique character of Spokane's culinary heritage, with a focus on ingredients unique to the region. ♦

Every SAGA grantee and their full project details can be found on Spokane Arts' website, spokanearts.org. Melissa Huggins has served as the executive director of Spokane Arts since 2016.

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