For Culture's Sake

June 29, 1995

Quietly, but steadily, the political leaders of Baltimore City and the surrounding counties seem to be realizing that they're stronger together than as competing fiefdoms. On areas from business promotion to bay preservation, from corrections to composting, the city and counties have joined in various partnerships to find collective solutions to their problems.

The area presumably ripe for cooperation, however, remains dormant: Funding for the arts and culture. Baltimore is home to most of the major cultural attractions in the area. Suburbanites comprise the bulk of the clientele. And yet the city, with the weakest tax base, almost single-handedly must keep these institutions afloat.

County residents would not argue the value of having museums and theaters, the zoo and aquarium a quick jaunt from home. But when budget season rolls around each spring, the various county executives, even if they're inclined to increase aid to city-based institutions, find no political support to do so. The loudest voices on their county councils and even among some jealous local arts groups ask: Why are you giving money to the city?

We hope it won't take a crisis, such as a theater going belly up, for this area to understand that when it comes to funding culture, we're Neanderthals ogling cave paintings. Dozens of other cities are light years ahead of us.

Denver has a six-county sales tax of 0.1 percent dedicated to cultural needs. Even in an anti-tax climate, that levy was recently reaffirmed by referendum. St. Louis has a cultural tax district that enables residents to visit its major attractions free. Greater Portland, Ore., doesn't have a tax, but created a council to promote and support the arts as a cohesive community. Some places show a delicious sense of irony: Tucson, Ariz., taxes rounds of golf for the arts and tiny Deadwood, S.D., taxes its neon gambling parlors to protect the burg's historic architecture.

This isn't simply a matter of keeping up with Deadwood's Joneses, however. The major cultural amenities in Baltimore (and the ones being planned, such as the Disney-designed Children's Museum) contribute mightily to this region's quality of life and its ability to attract business. It is in the long-term interest of all Baltimore-area residents, both in the city and suburbs, for leaders to explore a more formal solution to funding culture, in line with the strides they have begun to make together in other areas.

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