Two big Pennsylvania arts-and-government stories are unfolding simultaneously, so I’m going to mash them together in one post:
First, the Philadelphia Museum’s architecture critic, Inga Saffron, reports that the Barnes Foundation for the first time will make public architectural plans for its planned Philadelphia facility. This will occur on Wednesday morning, when the Barnes makes a presentation to the city’s Art Commission, which must approve its plans.
Several key city officials already have reviewed the architectural
design by the New York office of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, and the
commission is widely expected to sign off on the general massing and
In advance of the hearing, foundation officials submitted a packet of
documents yesterday containing the site plan and various architectural
drawings so commission members can have time to review the details.
Ordinarily, such documents are also available to the public. But in an
unusual move, Barnes officials asked the commission to consider the
plans “proprietary” and withhold them from public scrutiny until
Wednesday. A city solicitor approved the request.
Question: Doesn’t Pennsylvania have a Right to Know Law?
Answer: Yes. Here it is. It applies to local, as well as state, agencies. Isn’t the Barnes’ report, to be considered in public by a public body, a public document? There are exceptions to the state’s requirement for disclosure, set forth in the Right to Know Law’s Section 708, (starting on p. 12 of the above-linked PDF). I see nothing in that section that would justify non-disclosure of the Barnes-related information. (I have a query pending about this with the Art Commission.)
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s culturati and the nation’s arts luminaries are mobilizing against the proposed imposition of an 8% sales tax on admissions to performances, museums and zoos in the state. That plan sparked much controversy, not only in Pennsylvania, but also nationally. On Friday, the Association of Art Museum Directors sent a letter to Gov. Edward Rendell and Pennsylvania legislative leaders, urging them to abandon the arts tax proposal.
The proposed expansion of the sales tax will erode
the substantial positive economic impact of your state’s cultural institutions: Non-profit organizations in Pennsylvania generate $1.99 billion in economic activity each year. Taxing the capacity of museums and other organizations to make these vital educational and financial contributions to the state makes neither fiscal nor practical sense.
Happily, the state’s House on Thursday removed the arts tax from the tax code bill that now goes to the Senate. The Philadelphia Arts and Cultural Alliance has issued an alert that summarizes the issue and includes a sample letter to be sent to legislators.
That letter concludes:
There are plenty of options for revenue—and putting the theaters,
historical sites, artists, and museums at risk that make Pennsylvania
so unique is not one of them.
Gary Steuer, Philadelphia’s chief cultural officer, who directs the city’s Office of
Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, came out against the proposed arts sales tax more than a week ago, on his Arts, Culture and Creative Economy blog. In an extended post, Steuer got to the heart of the bigger problem faced by cultural organizations in their efforts to secure and keep government support:
It appears this tax was “easy” to impose because of the perception that the arts are an activity benefiting the wealthy, educated elite who can easily pay the extra tax. This tax was not seen to affect a broad public constituency, and therefore was seen as politically easier and less painful to impose because it would have minimal impact on the average citizen. This is one of the biggest challenges our field faces—changing this perception. An even bigger challenge is that for many institutions this perception may be accurate. Demographically arts patrons ARE richer, more educated and—frankly whiter—than the average population.
We tout the wealth and education of our patrons when we want to secure a sponsorship from Lexus or BMW, and we love those black tie galas, but when we advocate with the government we are transformed into champions of average folks, school children, diverse populations, the elderly, neighborhood transformation. And we ARE those things as well—the arts touch every citizen whether they know it or not, and have a profound effect on our communities and our lives.
We are both sides of that coin, Janus-like, and that makes for very complicated messaging, and challenging advocacy.