Shared funding for culture All jurisdictions benefit from area's museums, art institutions, but not all pay to ensure their success.

January 05, 1998

An editorial Monday on supporting local culture incorrectly stated that Baltimore County had contributed $110,000 to the Baltimore Museum of Art this fiscal year. In fact, the county gave $190,000.

The Sun regets the errors.

THE BALTIMORE MUSEUM of Art is Maryland's largest and best attended art museum. Some 130,000 visited in the past three months to view "A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum," the acclaimed exhibit that concludes Jan. 18. The museum draws nearly as many patrons from Baltimore County as from the city. But while city taxpayers provide $2.9 million -- or one-third -- of the BMA's funding, the contribution of the Baltimore County government this year is a paltry $110,000.

Even that is plenty, compared with BMA's funding from Howard County government ($18,001), Harford County ($15,000) and Anne Arundel County ($12,000).

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Then there is Carroll County. Its governmental contribution to BMA this year is a miserly $375. That's one-fifth of a penny for every Carroll resident (3,700 of whom visited the museum), compared to $4.20 for every Baltimore City resident.

Although city-based cultural institutions from the National Aquarium to the Baltimore Zoo are heavily used by people from throughout the region, they receive scant aid from suburban governments.

This did not matter much years ago when the city was wealthier. But with a declining population and tax base, the city will be hard-pressed to continue to shoulder this disproportionate level of support. The very existence of some valuable institutions may be threatened.

A short-lived effort was made in 1989 to improve the funding structure. The five suburban members of the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments pledged to increase their support for Baltimore-based cultural and scientific institutions.

The arrangement was hailed as the start of a mechanism that could guarantee sustained region-wide support for cultural institutions in good times and bad.

Yet when a national recession squeezed local budgets the very next year, arts funding was sacrificed first by a new crop of elected officials. They did not regard it as a priority and did not consider themselves bound by the pact of their predecessors. They eventually abolished the regional council.

But as other cities show, when it comes to finding money for cultural purposes, where there is a will there is a way. Consider:

Since 1967, Hawaii has earmarked 1 percent of construction costs of new state buildings for art.

In Arizona, the Tucson Arts District collects a $1 per room per night surcharge from local hotels and resorts.

Voters in Salt Lake County, Utah, last year approved a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax hike to fund a variety of cultural programs rTC as well as parks and recreation.

One of the most sophisticated cultural funding models comes from Colorado. Since 1988, six local jurisdictions have been charging a special sales tax -- a penny on a $10 purchase -- to support scientific and cultural facilities in the Denver metropolitan area. More than $100 million have been distributed so far.

Recipients of the Denver tax have been grouped into three tiers, based on their own success at generating revenue.

In Tier One are the area's most popular attractions -- the zoo, the Museum of Natural History, the art museum and botanical gardens. They draw most of the visitors and receive 59 percent of the funding.

Tier Two consists of performing arts groups of regional importance, ranging from the Denver symphony, ballet and opera to the children's museum and two festivals. They get 28 percent of the funding. All funded institutions are obligated to provide free admission to Colorado residents on designated days. At the Denver Art Museum, for example, Saturday admission is free. The botanical gardens has eight free days a year, the Museum of Natural History seven.

Could this kind of an arrangement be duplicated in the Baltimore region to aid a variety of cultural and scientific programs in the city and counties?

L Certainly. All it requires is leadership and political will.

The sales tax imposed by six Denver area jurisdictions was crafted as an alternative after the Colorado legislature eliminated its annual contributions to several key cultural institutions. Approved twice by local voters, the mechanism is now in place until 2006.

In the Baltimore area, a half-penny on the property tax earmarked to support cultural and scientific programs would be a major step toward ensuring the funding stability of institutions that contribute to the quality of the region's life.

This is a concept that far-sighted local officials ought to embrace.

Next: Put the mass in mass transit.

Pub Date: 1/05/98

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