President elect Barack Obama’s plan to aid the national economy includes $350 billion in spending on infrastructure — from water systems to broadband networks. Cultural institutions aren’t part of the package, but arts leaders in Kentucky and beyond are thinking more seriously about their infrastructure needs and their role in the economy. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.
The Kentucky Center is packed with patrons for a long-awaited event — the Louisville premiere of the Broadway hit “Wicked.”
But behind the scenes is another highly anticipated event: a major upgrade of this 25-year old state-owned facility. Last year, the state approved a series of bond issues of $9 million to bring it up to date.
Center president Stephen Klein says he hopes some of the funding comes through next month.
“If in fact we get something this February,” Klein says, “we will be able this summer to do our lighting dimming systems, elevators, restrooms and a new stage floor for the Whitney.”
The rest of the long-overdue work will take place through the summer of 2011, including replacing massive backstage equipment that has been unusable for years.
It’s a familiar scenario to the Nonprofit Finance Fund, which sees nonprofits put off much needed infrastructure overhauls. The fund advises nonprofits and has lent more than $200 million to small and mid-sized organizations. Its president, Clara Miller, says covering capital expenses is crucial to efficiently managing an arts organization.
“It takes, in the case of arts organizations, almost $4 of investment in bricks and mortar to earn a dollar of revenue, and that depreciates every year,” Miller says. “And so that adds to the cost of doing business. It’s invisible to the public and it’s invisible to most of us in our own houses until, you know, the roof starts leaking.”
In the case of Bowling Green’s Capitol Arts Center it was a ceiling. It’s housed in a theater built in the 1890s. In 2003, the center closed the building for months to repair the crumbling ceiling and more. Costs ran nearly half a million dollars and depleted its endowment. Today, the Center is up and running, but still has problems.
Last year, it asked the state for one and a half million dollars, but got nothing due to the tight state budget. The center’s manager, Karen Hume, says she struggles to raise funds for capital projects.
“We try to do what fundraising we can,” Hume says. “We go to our county and our city and beg for extra money and basically get down on our hands and our knees and make sure that it’s out there.”
Call it begging or call it lobbying. That’s what the Kentucky Center did to get its money. Arts centers commonly work with lawmakers to find funds for capital projects. Often, it comes tucked in earmarks or through urban renewal or even transportation programs at the state and federal levels.
But two states have created specific funding sources for cultural facilities that also require a percentage of private funding. In 2006, an economic stimulus package in Massachusetts created the Cultural Facilities Fund. It’s awarded nearly $24 million to more than 100 institutions from the state’s general fund. Mississippi has distributed nearly $18 million since 2001 for renovation or construction of 90 facilities through its Building Fund for the Arts. Like the Kentucky Center upgrade, that program is funded through bonds.
Mississippi State Senator John Horhn says the program has bipartisan support for several reasons.
“We here in Mississippi are finally understanding and making the connection between our arts and culture as an important ingredient of our who we are and what it means to us in terms of tourism development, quality of life, and things like that,” Horhn says.
Some economists see value in these programs, even during this economy. One is Ann Markusen with the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
“Those are very good ideas and especially to the extent to which they’re protected,” Markusen says. “So, of course, if it’s out of your general fund, that makes it vulnerable. I think in Mississippi, it’s more immune to these kinds of downturns.”
Other economists and arts administrators say investments in cultural facilities come back to communities when the events they host attract customers and tourists, even to nearby businesses.
For now, that case isn’t one a financially strapped Kentucky legislature is considering. But many arts administrators say lawmakers should, and have a plan ready for arts institutions statewide when the economy improves.