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Please endure a Room Tax Commission meeting

The body steers much of Madison’s public arts funding, but who’s watching?

Image: A postcard of the Capital Hotel, which once operated on King Street in downtown Madison, shows pastel-colored illustrations in four rectangular panels and one central oval panel, showing dining rooms, a bar, the hotel lobby and its front entrance. Image via Boston Public Library on Flickr.

The city of Madison is in the thick of its annual budget process. Once again, we may get through this whole cycle without having much serious public conversation at all about increasing the city’s funding for arts programs. Last year, amid the tax-revenue fallout from the pandemic, the Common Council and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway adopted a budget that largely held the line on arts funding. 

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Still, long before the COVID-19 crisis, this was a very stagnant conversation. Politicians love to tout the cultural and economic importance of the arts, but the actual money they spend on it is a tiny sum, and when things progress they do so in even tinier increments. And it’s never going to budge unless we address some very dull process issues. One of them is the city’s Room Tax Commission

A lot of arts funding in Madison comes from this rather sleepy six-member body. The Mayor appoints its members, which currently include two City of Madison Alders. State law empowers room tax commissions to spend local governments’ tax revenues from hotel-room stays, and most of that money has to go toward tourism-related things. The same statute also requires that the commission include representation from the hotel industry. Does the statute mention anything about art or cultural investment? Don’t be silly. There are other parts of the city budget, more under the control of the Council and Mayor, that include arts funding, but Room Tax is by far the biggest single source of it. Some years it’s more than half. 

The Room Tax Commission has already set its budget for 2022, passing it at a September 22 meeting that lasted all of 24 minutes. Room Tax meetings are usually pretty quiet, but this time even members of the commission were surprised at the absolute lack of participation. They weren’t doing anything sneaky or rushed, either. It’s just that literally no one signed up for public comment. They passed a ho-hum budget and didn’t really hear much at all from people who might have benefitted from more generous and thoughtfully designed subsidies for the arts. As usual, the Overture Center is on track to get the single biggest piece of city arts funding—$1.6 million, this time around. 

What they’ve passed will go on to the Common Council and Mayor as part of the city’s annual Operating Budget. This part is largely a formality—state law is pretty clear that it’s the Room Tax Commission itself, not the Council or Mayor, that has the real say over how the city uses these funds.

The role of the Room Tax Commission in arts funding creates two big vulnerabilities. 

First, people who advocate for arts funding often have to argue for it in terms of its impact on tourism. That can feel like a stretch, and it can lend itself to short-sighted decisions. People on the commission and in the arts world can’t always agree on where the line is. The tourism angle is easy to see with big facilities like Overture that routinely attract out-of-town visitors. It is much harder to apply that thinking to the bottom-up work of an arts community doing work largely by and for locals, which is where all the really interesting stuff germinates. Maybe that attracts tourism in the long run, but it’s a slow burn. One hesitates to mention this to the commission’s members, lest they start slashing their already meager outlays for art and music.

Second, if people aren’t traveling and staying in hotels, the fund can take a hit, as it did in 2020. Sometimes the city will reach into another pot of money to help the commission even things out, but it’s clearly a tenuous source of support. 

Tricks of perspective

The city’s combined operating and capital budgets for 2020 initially totaled up to about $514.6 million. Root around in there and you’ll find about $3.2 million in solid commitments to things that bear on the arts in some way. That is about three-fifths of one percent of the entire budget. The city’s relatively new “percent for art” program will definitely boost that support over time, but this isn’t easy to track through the city budget process, because it’s tied to the money the city actually spends on capital projects in a given year.

When I say the city’s arts funding is small, I don’t mean that it’s easy to get your head around. Various cities around the country—bigger ones than Madison, but also some smaller ones!—have a distinct office within their local governments for cultural affairs, art, and/or music. Not Madison. The city doesn’t have any one agency or office or section of its budget where most of the arts-related stuff is neatly tied together. Instead, there are a few different sources of money, a few different departments and bodies, each handling a few funding items that touch on the arts. The one full-time city staffer who works on arts policy, Arts Program Administrator Karin Wolf, is technically an employee of the city’s Planning Division. Is there a place where the city makes information about arts funding clear and digestible during the budget process? No, there is not.

As you start to explain all this, people’s eyes glaze over, and it’s really no wonder that you don’t see more involvement in this process from local artists who are already juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet. As in many areas of local government, the sheer number of moving parts, committees, commissions, task forces, and arcane parliamentary details create barriers to meaningful participation. Simply telling people to show! up! isn’t enough. If artists and their advocates miss the opportunity to chime in on the Room Tax Commission’s process, then by the same token the commission misses the opportunity to share more information with the public about what it’s working on and make those processes more involved and representative.

The arts community should be part of the broader effort to shift local governments’ spending priorities away from violence and austerity. Artists of all stripes in Madison can and should organize to demand more support from local government. It’s also a hard sell to ask people to invest time and energy into frustrating government structures that don’t really align with their needs in the first place. Commenting at Room Tax Commission meetings will probably not make a huge difference in and of itself. It would, however, be good for artists and their advocates to see how this works, and good for the commission members to understand the unmet needs out there.

Investments out of balance

You also can’t blame artists for feeling jaded about the fact that most of this already meager spending goes to established, connected players. In that sense the city’s spending on arts programs kind of is a function of who shows up. Overture, whatever its value, has long enjoyed a level of philanthropic and government support that’s just unimaginable for most arts organizations in town, not to mention most individual artists. Smaller annual subsidies for programs like Make Music Madison, Dane Dances, and the Between The Waves conference (this latter got cut this year, due to uncertainty about how feasible or safe it would be to hold the event amid the ongoing pandemic) seem to get handed out as a matter of course, without much discussion of the merits. They have merits, but I think the decision-making also has a lot to do with the narrow, top-down view many civic leaders take of the arts. When these decisions are wrapped up in tourism development, and long-term city investments in projects like Monona Terrace and Overture, that focus grows narrower still. It doesn’t take long to figure out that a lot of the government officials, philanthropists, and business figures involved in these conversations really have no idea what Madison’s arts landscape looks like outside of a few large institutional contexts.

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The amount of money the city gives the Madison Arts Commission to award in the form of individual arts grants each year simply pales in comparison. Room Tax’s contribution to MAC grants has stayed flat at $79,000 for years now. Allocations for temporary art installations and other programs help as well, but it’s just not the same scale of investment that Overture has been able to count on for years. Look at the major items in in the 2022 Room Tax budget:

  • $4.1 million to Monona Terrace

  • $1.6 million to Overture Center

  • $4.1 million to Destination Madison

  • $145,000 to City Tourism Marketing, which, to illustrate that above point about tourism and the arts, is such a weird cobbling-together of a bunch of different stuff:

    • $20,000 for Sister Cities program

    • $15,000 for Dane Dances

    • $15,000 for Madison Music Madison

    • $15,000 for “Fairs / Festivals / Summer Concerts”

    • $20,000 for temporary art installations

    • $25,000 to continue an ongoing study of the economics and equity issues at work in local music and to fund its implementation (findings so far include that local governments’ lack of investment in the arts is a problem!)

    • $15,000 for the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association basketball tournament

    • $20,000 for “Civic Promotion/Civic Conferences”

  • $30,000 for Room Tax Commission Administration and Enforcement

  • $79,000 for Arts Grants

  • $1.6 million for Vilas Zoo and Olbrich Gardens

At Room Tax meetings, you unsurprisingly hear mostly from hotel, tourism, and other business interests. Rarely the voices of people deeply involved in the arts, except for Wolf and City of Madison planner Angela Puerta, who spends part of her work time on arts issues. (Wolf and Puerta accomplish so much with the time and resources they have, and a lot of that involves trying to educate elected and appointed officials, but the city needs to give them some actual support staff.) Several of the commission’s members sit on the boards of organizations that receive the lion’s share of Room Tax funding, including the Overture Center, Destination Madison, and Monona Terrace. This isn’t hidden—members share this information during the “disclosures and recusals” agenda item at the start of each meeting. (Nonprofit board members usually don’t get paid for their work on those boards, but do have a responsibility to those organizations.) 

Still, it’s hard to miss the element of self-dealing openly baked into this. Hotels generate taxes. The city then spends that money on tourism promotion that ideally convinces more people to visit Madison and stay in hotels, ideally generating more taxes, and so on. 

This money does accomplish some good things for the arts in Madison. The problem is that there isn’t enough of it. The process ultimately doesn’t seem to have much to do with local artists, local audiences, or creating better support structures for the arts in Madison long-term. We probably should not be relying on it as a primary source of arts funding in the first place. This budget season, we should ask our city officials why we can’t have something better.

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