Washington D.C. Council Creates Dedicated Sales Tax to Fund the Arts

by Michael Eddy
Actors Equity on new sales tax in Washington, D.C. to support the arts
Actors Equity on new sales tax in Washington, D.C. to support the arts

Actors' Equity Association released the following statement after members of the Council of the District of Columbia approved a dedicated sales tax to fund the arts at their last legislative meeting in June. The new tax is expected to generate $30 million per year to fund local theatre and arts productions.

"Equity members are the heart and soul of theatrical productions that generate millions of dollars in economic activity in the District of Columbia," said Kate Shindle, President of Actors’ Equity. "A strong cultural economy helps create a stronger economy for the whole city. This move will create good jobs and benefit everyone in the District of Columbia."

Actors' Equity recently released a new study of regional theatre and found the District of Columbia is a leader, with nearly 17 weeks of professional theatre produced in the District for each Equity member in the region. Outside of the large theatre centers of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, only one city, Orlando, was producing more professional theatre. View the full study here.

Theatres create jobs onstage, backstage, and for other box office personnel. They also help stimulate tourism and support surrounding businesses. A 2017 study by the non-profit organization Americans for the Arts estimated the economic value generated by the audiences who attend performing arts events in the District of Columbia exceeded $1.2 billion. Additionally, local arts organizations generated another $1.6 billion in economic activity, totaling a combined impact that approached $3 billion.

“We think the District of Columbia is a model for other cities that want to both support the arts and create new jobs,” said Roy A. Gross, Chair of Equity’s Washington, D.C/Baltimore Liaison Committee. “Having this dedicated funding stream will enable theatres to apply for multi-year matching grants which will further boost arts funding and benefit the arts and those who make their living on the stage and behind it and for all those who work at bars, restaurants, parking garages and other businesses near theatres.”

Local Equity members wrote hundreds of letters to councilmembers in support of the arts funding legislation. Shindle also submitted testimony to the council. Her written remarks can be found below.

Earlier this spring, Councilmember Jack Evans, who chairs the council’s Committee on Finance and Revenue, joined by Mary Cheh, David Grosso, Brianne Nadeau, Brandon Todd, and Robert White, introduced the Commission on the Arts and Humanities Dedicated Funding Amendment Act of 2018, which dedicates a quarter of a percent (.25 percent) of the existing sales and use tax to the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

The move came while the Trump Administration proposed to eliminate funding to the National Endowment for the Arts. Overall, NEA funding has been cut by $20 million annually since 2010. State funding for the arts is 42.5 percent down from its all-time high levels dating back to 2001, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA).

Since 1967, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities has provided grants and educational opportunities to support nonprofit organizations, including arts education in public schools and public charter schools throughout the District. The Commission will manage grants generated by the new tax.

Further information from Actor’s Equity Association: www.actorsequity.orgactorsequity.org 

Kate Shindle’s testimony to the Council of the District of Columbia

May 7, 2018
On behalf of the more than 1,100 members of Actors' Equity Association who live and work in the District of Columbia I am writing to express strong support for the Commission on the Arts and Humanities Dedicated Funding Amendment Act of 2018.

Actors' Equity is the labor union representing professional actors and stage managers who work in live theatre. I write to you not only as Equity's President, but also as an Equity member who recently spent several weeks working at the National Theatre during the 2016-2017 tour of "Fun Home." While many of you may think of our members when you see a production at larger venues like the Kennedy Center or Ford's Theatre, the reality is that Equity members are going to work day in and day out at other theaters throughout the District, such as Theatre J, a 238-seat theater on 16th Street.

Make no mistake, this proposal is not just good for those of us who work in the arts. It's good for the entire economy. Equity released our first-ever study of regional theatre and found that the District of Columbia produced the second-most weeks of professional theatre of any city listed in the rankings. That strong cultural economy helps create a stronger economy for everyone.

Equity members are the heart and soul of productions that generate millions of dollars in economic activity, working in middle-class jobs that cannot be offshored. Theaters don't just create jobs onstage and backstage (actors, stage managers, crew, musicians) and in the front of the house (box office personnel, ushers, concessions and merchandise sales). They also create administrative jobs for those who find the plays, develop the plays, fundraise and manage the facilities.

Beyond that, though, theatre is an economic stimulus to the surrounding community. The performing arts attract tourists. They encourage the establishment of ancillary businesses (restaurants, parking garages, hotels) and encourage both entrepreneurship and real estate development within their geographic spheres of influence. It's easy to forget how Studio Theatre, which has been employing Equity members for years, helped lead the revitalization of 14th Street when it opened in 1978.

A 2017 study by the nonprofit organization Americans for the Arts estimated the economic value generated by the audiences attending performing arts events in the District of Columbia exceeded $1.2 billion. Local arts organizations generated another $1.6 billion in economic activity, for a combined impact of nearly $3 billion.  

For all the reasons I've outlined, it's clear that the arts are a huge economic driver in the District of Columbia. But despite all this, the funding for theatre remains incredibly tenuous, even in today's economy. While the National Endowment for the Arts has now withstood two attempts by the Trump Administration to zero out funding completely, the reality is that NEA funding has been slashed by $20 million annually since 2010. Even more troubling, state and local arts funding has failed to make up the difference. This year's State Arts funding is down $9 million across the country according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA). State funding remains below all-time high funding levels in 2001, and when accounting for inflation, state funding for the arts is 42.5 percent below 2001 levels.

I should note that in most cases, dedicated arts funds represent important seed funding that allows many Equity theaters to do the fundraising they need to bring a full season of theatre to the stage. For example, many theaters around the country that receive NEA funds can use that as a credential to secure additional funding from private philanthropies. Without strong seed funding, local arts organizations would find it much harder to raise funds from the private sector.

On behalf of all the members of the Equity community who live and work in the District of Columbia, I want to thank you all for engaging in this debate, and strongly encourage you to support the Commission on the Arts and Humanities Dedicated Funding Amendment Act.

Respectfully,
Kate Shindle
President, Actors' Equity Association