Of Painters and Potholes

Artist Addison Karl

Of Painters and Potholes

The city and county both fund the arts, but to different extents and with different levels of enthusiasm. What is the role of government?

by jesse fox mayshark • july 24, 2019


artist addison karl works on a city-commissioned mural on a wall of the market square parking garage.

When a member of Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero’s staff posted an enthusiastic notice on the mayor’s Facebook page earlier this month about a new downtown mural, the responses broke down along familiar lines.

Art and culture: Tourism draw, elitist playground, or the soul of the city?

There were the positive comments: “Can’t wait to see the finished project. I love all the art around downtown!” There were the outright haters: “What a joke!!!” There were questions about why the contract had gone to an out-of-state painter: “Got an expensive artist from Oregon was it? No one local could do it?” (The artist, Addison Karl, is from Seattle.)

And there were a whole lot of ideas for better ways to spend the money the city appropriated for the project: “Can he paint all the potholes on your streets bright colors so we can see them better?” “Should have went to Lowe’s and bought 10 gallons of paint and saved $150,800 and brought Boomsday back to life.” “Anyone with a sense of morality knows we should take care of the homeless and less fortunate before you piss away $151,000 for someone to paint a brick wall.” 

Such is the nature of discourse around spending taxpayer dollars on public art and arts organizations. Both the City of Knoxville and Knox County government allocate money each year for the arts, although with different degrees of enthusiasm and levels of funding. County Commission this week approved a contract for $275,000 with the Arts and Culture Alliance of Greater Knoxville, for services from 24 of its members.

“It’s a good use of a hotel-motel tax when that is designated to encourage visitors,” said Commission Chair Hugh Nystrom, citing one of the most common justifications for spending public money on the arts.

But what is the real value of public arts funding? Is it strictly utilitarian or does it have some higher purpose? And what do residents of the city and county get in return for their dollars? 

Making the Case

Liza Zenni has many answers to those questions, as you’d expect from the executive director of the Arts and Culture Alliance. The membership group encompasses more than 100 local member organizations and institutions, including recent start-ups like River & Rail Theatre Company, mainstays like the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, and historic venues like the Tennessee and Bijou theatres.

“I call Knoxville the city that arts rebuilt,” Zenni said, pointing to the major role of arts and culture in the revitalization of downtown.

From the city-funded Sundown in the City concerts that reintroduced Knoxvillians to Market Square, to the 20 or so once-empty buildings now occupied by arts organizations, to the Regal Riviera movie theater on Gay Street that draws thousands of people a week, downtown’s 21st century comeback is inextricable from its position as the region’s hub of arts and entertainment.

Zenni has led the Alliance since 2002, the year after it was founded, and she has learned to make the case for arts funding on the grounds of not just soaring rhetoric (though she can do that) but hard numbers. Ask her about the impact of the arts in Knoxville, and a minute later you’ll have a briefing in your email inbox rattling off a raft of facts and figures.

According to a study released in 2017, the arts and culture sector in Knox County generates $145.9 million a year. 

Zenni’s report says, “This spending – $48.2 million by nonprofit arts and culture organizations and an additional $97.7 million in event-related spending by their audiences – supports 5,503 full-time equivalent jobs, generates $104 million in household income to local residents, and delivers $18.6 million in local and state government revenue. That amount equals as much local tax revenue as is generated by all UT home football games combined.”

As an arts partisan, of course, Zenni hates to talk only about direct dollar-for-dollar payoffs.

“It brings a joy of life, a joi de vivre,” she said of the everyday encounters made possible by public arts funding. “It brings civic pride. People feel like they want to shout about it. They’re proud of Knoxville, they want to bring people here.”

Ashley Capps, CEO of AC Entertainment and the founder of the annual Big Ears Festival, has a long history with both the business and pleasure sides of the arts equation. Big Ears, which incorporated as an independent nonprofit in 2018, has received support from the city and county governments.

“To me, this goes back to a government being of, for and by the people, and striving to nurture the common good,” Capps said. “I do think that there is a role for government to help support certain types of activity.”

Like Zenni, he can cite the economic benefits of arts funding. He notes that Big Ears has become a tentpole weekend for downtown businesses.

“Many of the downtown restaurants, they told us that they had their biggest weekend in the history of the restaurant,” Capps said. “That might surprise people, but think about it. You’ve got several thousand people coming from all over the United States, most of them are staying in our downtown, they’re on the streets, they’re eating at all the restaurants, sometimes three meals a day.”

Shabaka Hutchings at Big Ears 2019

Shabaka Hutchings performing with The Comet Is Coming at Big Ears 2019.

But he also sees a deeper, less tangible benefit for the community -- one that goes beyond bottom lines and the win/lose mentality of data-driven discussions.

“Most people go to see the Knoxville Symphony or the Knoxville Opera perform, and they don’t walk out saying, ‘Wow, they won tonight!’” Capps said. “They’ll walk out having had an experience that sometimes they may even be grappling with a little bit and learning from and processing a little bit. That helps you grow as a person.”

Chyna Brackeen, co-founder and organizer of the Rhythm ’N’ Blooms Festival, which also benefits from city funding, agrees.

“When I think about what makes the kind of city where people want to live,” Brackeen said, “certainly there are infrastructure things and things like dealing with homelessness that are very important to making a city vibrant and compelling and enticing. But it’s the heart and soul of the city that makes people love where they are. And you don’t get heart and soul without the arts.”

City-County Split

But, as Zenni knows well, different parts of those arguments work better for different governmental bodies. In recent years, the City of Knoxville has substantially stepped up its public arts spending, while Knox County government has moved to a more metric-driven formula.

Under former County Mayor Tim Burchett, county contributions that used to be grants to local nonprofit organizations were reconfigured as “defined services contracts,” with expectations that the groups receiving them could show tangible benefits -- in the case of the arts, tourism dollars.

The city also requires performance metrics, but it still uses the softer “community agency grants” to describe its annual funding for local nonprofits. The city relies on the Arts & Culture Alliance to help evaluate arts and culture grant applications. The county accepts a single united application from the Alliance for a defined services contract with 24 arts and culture organizations to provide tourism-geared events and activities that will attract visitors to Knox County.

The differences go beyond semantics. The county’s arts funding comes from the hotel-motel tax, which can only be spent to promote tourism, and that’s the emphasis county officials use in talking about it.

Nystrom, for example, says of Big Ears, “We saw a direct impact in terms of both visitors and mentions in the media all over the United States that Knoxville was just a great place to visit.”

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs is a libertarian with strong ideas about the limits of government responsibility. Asked to comment on the value of public arts funding, Jacobs sent a statement that didn’t even mention the word “arts” (or promise support in future years).

The hotel/motel tax is designed to provide funds for promoting tourism in Knox County, a vital part of our economy producing over $1 billion in direct spending and $84 million in state and local tax revenue," Jacobs wrote. "Moving forward, we want to ensure that we are utilizing these funds as effectively as possible to maximize the county’s support of tourism.”

On the other hand, Rogero said in a statement, “One measure of a city’s vibrancy is its embrace of public art and its support for a thriving arts and culture scene. Art inspires the heart and soul of a community. It is also an important economic generator. Arts funding is a worthy and strategic investment for public dollars.”

Rogero’s office provided a breakdown showing $1.7 million in direct funding for public art projects during her two terms, plus annual grants bringing total arts funding in that time to $5.4 million.

(One thing to keep in mind, as with all city-county divides, is that city residents also pay county property taxes, which means they pay into both the city and county budgets. So the approximately 40 percent of county residents who live inside city limits are paying the vast majority of public arts funding for the whole county.)

The highest-profile critic of the city’s arts spending for the past few years has been Councilwoman Seema Singh, whose skepticism comes from a progressive rather than conservative standpoint. She has voted against some public arts projects, including a new $500,000 sculpture planned for the corner of Gay Street and Summit Hill Drive, out of concern that the money could be better spent on social services.

“I know a lot of money comes in (from tourism),” Singh said. “My concern oftentimes is the money that comes in generally goes into very specific hands and doesn’t trickle down to everyone in Knoxville.”

Singh said it was easier for her to justify grants to organizations like the Joy of Music School and Community School of the Arts, which serve low-income students. She said even organizations that may seem elitist, like the Knoxville Opera, have outreach programs that can inspire young people.

“That’s what I always hope for,” Singh said. “It can change kids’ lives.”

Zenni said that for her, government support of arts and cultural organizations ultimately comes down to a question of what kind of community people want their elected representatives to help nurture.

“We’re part of the broader landscape,” she said, “but an essential, colorful, joyful part. Without it, sure, you could drive down from one end of Gay Street to the other, but where would be the joy in it?”