Portland’s arts tax is a good deal

by Jeff Hawthorne, the interim executive director of the Regional Arts & Culture Council.
Published in The Oregonian on October 8, 2017. 

The arts tax is supported by Portland taxpayers because it benefits Portland’s public school students, yields economic dividends and makes our community better. The Oregonian/OregonLive’s recent editorial, “Portland’s arts tax should go back to the ballot,” lacked important context.

Ninety-three percent of Americans believe arts education is critical to a well-rounded education. But when school budgets are squeezed, arts education invariably finds itself on the chopping block. That is why 62 percent of Portlanders voted to tax themselves to ensure that public grade schools in the city have at least one art or music teacher. Mission accomplished.

So then why does The Oregonian brazenly assert that the arts tax “specifies arts for only certain students?” In fact, every K-5 public school student in Portland benefits. Before the arts tax, there were 31 arts specialists. Today there are 92, that’s one teacher for every 381 students, and a vast improvement from the 1:997 ratio that existed before the arts tax. We agree that state government and local school boards should fully fund arts education for every student, but until that happens, the arts tax is the only thing keeping many art and music teachers on staff, plain and simple.

Furthermore, the arts tax provides critical resources through the Regional Arts & Culture Council for Portland’s nonprofit arts and culture sector. Prior to 2012, Portland’s general fund invested about $6 per capita in the council for the nonprofit arts sector. Today, with additional revenue from the arts tax, Portland’s investment is $9.38 per capita. That’s still below the national average and trailing other cities that compete for creative talent, including $12 per capita in Austin, Texas, and almost $14 per capita in Seattle. Portland is still playing catch-up.

Cities across the country understand that investments in artists and arts organizations produce better results in education, a higher quality of life for residents and a more creative workforce. These investments are fully consistent with Portland’s goals to ensure a healthy, prosperous and equitable community.

The organizations funded by the Regional Arts & Culture Council provide an array of programs that bring diverse communities together and enhance the educational experience for tens of thousands of schoolchildren every year. Artists and arts organizations provide services for people experiencing homelessness, bring disenfranchised communities and police together to discuss public safety issues, expand opportunities for people with disabilities and provide $5 tickets for low-income Oregonians through the Arts for All program. Public funding makes all of this possible.

Public investments in the arts yield economic dividends as well. In addition to the tax, the city and Multnomah County last year invested a combined $8 million in the council that was distributed in grants and services. Those investments resulted in more than $294 million of economic activity, supporting 10,146 full time jobs with taxable income that returned $12.5 million back into local government coffers, according to the Arts & Economic Prosperity 5 study we recently published with Americans for the Arts. That’s a 156 percent return on investment, supporting other vital city and county services.

Portlanders are getting a great deal through the arts tax. If spending an additional $200,000 from the city’s general fund helps the city collect another $1 million to $2 million, which can be invested in arts education and access initiatives that benefit all Portlanders, I’d say that’s a good deal, too.