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Rochester artists, arts groups discuss funding options 

Is there a way to provide ongoing funding for Rochester’s vibrant, diverse arts community?

Local artists, arts organizations, and their supporters have been discussing that question for decades, and this year, it has begun to surface again. Friday afternoon, nearly 100 people — artists, elected officials, and representatives from arts organizations large and small — gathered in the auditorium at Visual Studies Workshop for a discussion hosted by the Arts and Cultural Council and members of City Council.

The meeting was originally planned as a smaller focus-group session to discuss an August 2018 consultant’s study. That study was prepared for city officials to help explore how a large theater on Parcel 5 would affect the local arts community. The report also noted how several other cities are funding the arts, and Friday’s meeting was planned to further discuss the second issue.

But after some artists and arts organizers expressed concern about not being included, the meeting was opened to anyone who wanted to attend. The event drew individual artists and representatives from large and small galleries, dance organizations, theaters, and literary organizations, but few people of color attended. One who did, artist Taurus Savant, said he regretted that the audience wasn't more diverse. He went, he said, to take information from the event back to his network.

He also attended, he said, “to make sure my voice is heard and that people who look like me will also be heard." Savant said he knows several artists who don’t receive much financial help for their projects and often depend on their savings account or crowdsourcing to complete artwork. Yet the general public often benefits from art, especially public art, he said, and he wants more financial backing for that work.

click to enlarge Artists, representatives of area arts organizations, and arts supporters gathered in the auditorium of Visual Studies Workshop on Friday, December 14. - PHOTO BY TIANNA MANON
  • PHOTO BY TIANNA MANON
  • Artists, representatives of area arts organizations, and arts supporters gathered in the auditorium of Visual Studies Workshop on Friday, December 14.
Many people at the meeting noted obstacles to securing arts funding, including where the money should come from and how it should be given out.

During an open forum, some participants noted what other cities and counties across the nation have done to create arts funding, including enacting a small arts tax. For example, Mesa County, Colorado, enacted a Quality of Life sales tax that provides funding for theaters, galleries, and other institutions and has driven economic development in the region.

Cuyahoga County, Ohio, enacted a cigarette tax to fund arts organizations and artists, said Bleu Cease, director of Rochester Contemporary Art Center.

click to enlarge Bleu Cease, executive director of Rochester Contemporary Arts Center, was among the arts representatives who spoke at the arts funding meeting. - PHOTO BY TIANNA MANON
  • PHOTO BY TIANNA MANON
  • Bleu Cease, executive director of Rochester Contemporary Arts Center, was among the arts representatives who spoke at the arts funding meeting.
Locally, Monroe County taxes hotel and motel revenue to help fund the Seneca Park Zoo, the Blue Cross Arena, and other venues, and some city officials have suggested that it could be used to help fund the arts.

But Rochester is a Democratic city in a conservative county, one participant at Friday’s meeting pointed out, and pressing for a tax for the arts would be an uphill battle on the county level.

Participants also raised the idea of creating an arts commissioner on the city or county level, either independent or government.

Musician and dancer Thomas Warfield noted that Rochester doesn’t have a clear mechanism for deciding how arts funding would be allocated. Determining who makes that decision will be key, he said. Discussions about funding options must include a discussion about equity in the arts, some participants said.

Friday’s meeting is likely to be the first of several on the topic of arts funding. City Council member Elaine Spaull, who initiated Friday’s event, said another will be organized soon, and information about it will be posted on the City of Rochester’s website.

MORE: Artist and owner of The Avenue Blackbox Theatre, Reenah Golden, on equity in arts funding discussions.

This story has been updated to reflect the print version that appears in CITY's Wednesday, December 19 issue.

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