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Craven: Taxing The Arts

05/18/10 7:55AM By Jay Craven
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(HOST) As a filmmaker and Marlboro College professor, commentator Jay Craven was recently startled to hear that Vermont legislators will soon eliminate non-profit arts presenters' exemption from paying sales tax on tickets.

(CRAVEN) Starting July 1st, 2011, Vermont's non-profit arts presenters will be required to pay a 6% state tax on their ticket sales. Events at Circus Smirkus, the Flynn Theater, Weston Playhouse, Marlboro Music Festival, New England Youth Theater-these and others will be affected. Even a benefit concert, where the artist donates her performance, will be taxed.

Perhaps your tax will be absorbed by the presenter.  Or maybe you'll shell out the extra cash when you buy your ticket.  But as arts groups struggle to meet rising costs and keep ticket prices affordable for a hard-pressed public, this change in tax policy is not good news.

Vermont will now stand alone, among its neighbors.  Because if you attend an event at Jacobs Pillow, Tanglewood, or the American Repertory Theater in Massachusetts, you don't pay tax.  Likewise, at Dartmouth's Hopkins Center, New York's American Ballet Theater, Chicago's Steppenwolf, and Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame.

The tradition of tax exemption and public support for fragile arts and cultural organizations goes back to 1817.  Indeed, President George Washington declared that - quote - "the arts are essential to the prosperity of the state and happiness of human life."

I understand that Vermont needs to balance its budget-and the argument is made that movie theaters charge tax and that non-profits should, too.  But there is a difference in how a for-profit movie theater operates, paying a percentage of gross sales and benefitting from tens of millions of Hollywood advertising dollars.  

Non-profits are not commercial enterprises; they don't break even on events, and they can't mark up their product. On the contrary, their production costs substantially exceed their earned income, requiring them to raise contributions to close the gap.  Non-profits act to fulfill a community mission - they are protected from taxation because they serve the public interest.  They also stimulate other local spending.

A Vermont arts producer contracts performers, books hotel rooms, hires union-scale tech crews, and mounts round-the-clock marketing efforts in an increasingly fragmented media landscape.  Vermont arts funding stands at less than a third of what it was twenty-five years ago, with no money for operating support and program grants capped at $5,000-for groups that manage huge risks.  Even the conservative state of Mississippi provides arts operating grants of $10,000 to $25,000.

There is apparently one concession in the new tax bill, retaining an exemption for educational programs.  But on this question, our legislators seem not to understand.  Nearly every arts event is educational, unless we think that learning is limited to kids in school.  But Burlington's upcoming Discover Jazz Festival is about just that-discovery-the most essential component in education-and the arts-from poetry and bluegrass - Shakespeare and Sam Shepard, to Swan Lake.  

Perhaps our legislators' hasty tax decision will open the door to expanded dialogue-to help us find ways to better harness, integrate, and secure the arts-as essential Vermont assets.

(TAG) You can find more commentaries by Jay Craven on-line at VPR-dot-net.

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