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Craven: Taxing The Arts

03/07/11 5:55PM By Jay Craven
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Portrait by Todd R. Lockwood
(HOST)  Filmmaker, commentator, and Marlboro College teacher Jay Craven is worried that recent funding cuts and new taxes on arts events will set back Vermont organizations that are vital to our communities.

(CRAVEN)  I felt a flush of excitement when the Acting Company and Guthrie Theater's huge tractor-trailer pulled in behind St. Johnsbury Academy's Fuller Hall.  We don't normally associate the arts with 18 wheelers, but there it was, emblazoned with the troupe's slogan: "All-America's our stage."

The truck's driver had been piloting one of 27 rigs across the country for Lady Gaga but he said he preferred plowing through the night from Michigan, to deliver the stunning sets for "Romeo and Juliet" to our northern Vermont town where 912 high school kids-and 600 adults crowded in to see their show.  Afterwards, the actor who played Romeo told kids about the troupe's mission - to bring good theater to small towns where "a cultural vein pulses."

I'm worried that this pulse may now be threatened.  President Obama has proposed cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts budget that is already less than it was in 1988.  The U.S. spends just 53 cents per capita on the arts, compared with Canada and the Netherlands that spend 46 dollars, or Germany and Finland at 85 dollars.  

I don't understand Obama's logic, given his State of the Union promise to cut waste and bloat - but invest to grow jobs and "win the future" - which the arts do, by stimulating ancillary spending and creating jobs with so very little public investment.

These NEA cuts will hurt Vermont arts groups that struggle in a precarious economy. Especially since Vermont's own arts program grants are among the lowest in the nation - at $5000 maximum compared to Mississippi that gives up to $25,000, Nebraska up to $45,000, and others.

The Vermont legislature will soon re-consider its decision to soon start charging a 6% sales tax on tickets to non-profit arts events.  At a time when leaders work against the odds to find new sponsors to keep ticket costs as low as possible - this new tax will increase the cost of producing and attending an event - even for subsidized school kids coming to a public performance like "Romeo and Juliet."  

One argument heard in Montpelier is that wealthy arts audiences can afford the tax. But looking around our Shakespeare crowd in St. J., I saw carpenters, mechanics, foster care families, the couple who run our local diner, a bulldozer operator, school teachers, bank assistants, farmers, and the guy who snowplows local driveways when he's not splitting wood for his sugar house.

If arts organizers felt they could squeeze an extra 6% from ticket prices - believe me - they would.  The new tax will generate 1/100th of 1% of the state's budget - but add to administrative costs and make Vermont the only state in New England to tax arts tickets.  Even Broadway shows are exempt, in recognition of their costs and risks.

I'm worried that we're on a slippery slope - that will hurt groups that make a difference to how we live - and already endure many sacrifices to advance their missions in the public interest.
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