[COMMENTARY] It’s Time for the Virginia Assembly to Honor Past Pledges and Fully Fund the Arts

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For more than three decades Virginia arts and cultural organizations have waited for the Virginia General Assembly to honor repeated pledges to fund the Virginia Commission for the Arts (VCA) at $1 per capita.

Over the years several Joint Resolutions passed by both houses of the General Assembly have endorsed this goal.  What was formerly a $6-million pledge in years past is now a $7-million promise as Virginia’s population has steadily increased – yet funding for the VCA today is less than half ($.41 per capita) what it was in 1990 ($.87 per capita).  Virginia’s arts are the lowest funded among its neighboring states.  Virginia ranks lower than Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina – ranking in the bottom three states east of the Mississippi River.  Virginia ranks 40th nationwide, and ranks below American Samoa, Guam, and the Virgin Islands.

When state and local governments move into a belt-tightening mode, too many see the path to a balanced budget through the arts, as evidenced by Norfolk’s recent draft FY19 budget.  But consider economic studies that have repeatedly acknowledged that the arts are a billion dollar industry, and in Virginia this industry employs about 20,000 people, generates hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity, and lures tourists from across the nation and from around the globe.  These studies show that for every $1 million invested in the arts, arts and cultural organizations generate receipts for Virginia businesses of more than $2 million. 

The Virginia Beach Office of Cultural Affairs announced in October 2017 the results of a comprehensive study by Americans for the Arts examining the economic impact of the arts in Virginia Beach. The study found that $87.7 million in economic activity and 2,875 jobs are generated annually by the non-profit arts and culture industry in Virginia Beach, making it a formidable business and economic driver for the City. 

“The arts are stronger than ever in Virginia Beach, and now we have the numbers to prove it,” said former Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms. “Arts and culture mean big business here.” 

Funds distributed to local arts commissions by the Virginia Commission for the Arts pay enormous dividends by ensuring access to arts and cultural opportunities throughout the Commonwealth, and by providing an important source of “seed money” to help leverage giving from individuals, businesses, and local governments. 

Hundreds of arts organizations contribute to the overall economic health of their communities.  These organizations enrich the lives of Virginians with music concerts, literary arts, dance performances, visual arts, public art, art exhibitions, arts education, and plays.  Virtually all have educational programs tailored for young people, which support the Standards of Learning. Cultural tourism is a substantial economic engine in Virginia’s economy, and thousands of volunteer hours are given annually to support the arts.  For more than three decades the Alli Awards have provided regional recognition of these volunteer hours as well as the support provided the region’s businesses. 

Surveys of state legislators conducted by Virginians for the Arts, the advocacy group for the arts in Virginia, consistently show overwhelming support to increase financial support for the Virginia Commission for the Arts and to achieve the $1-per-capita pledge … verbal support, but little action.

There are a number of possible funding sources.  An arts and tourism fee of 50 cents per night on the rental of every hotel/motel room, every bed-and-breakfast room rental, and campsite rental would fully fund the state’s long-standing pledge.  Another possibility is an entertainment fee of $1 per month on the bill of every cable television, internet access and satellite TV dish.  Or, an entertainment fee could be included for all tickets sold in Virginia: 15 cents for movies, 25 cents for concerts, plays and sporting events. 

Why is funding the arts important?  In his book “Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged,” Roger Scruton asserts that “Unlike science, culture is not a repository of factual information or theoretical truth, nor is it a kind of training in skills, whether rhetorical or practical.  Yet it is a source of knowledge: emotional knowledge, concerning what to do and what to feel.  We transmit this knowledge through ideals and examples, through images, narratives, and symbols.”

Former First Lady, Michelle Obama, observed that:  “The arts are not just a nice thing to have or to do if there is free time or if one can afford it.  Rather, paintings and poetry, music and fashion, design and dialogue, they all define who we are as a people and provide an account of our history for the next generation.” 

Winton “Red” Blount, former Postmaster General and Alabama industrialist, noted that:  “If history is to be the judge of our achievement as a nation, what will it say about those who would determine that art was merely an indulgence of the wealthy, and should be available only to the wealthy; that the whole people did not need it, and ought to be denied it by reason of their means?”

Today’s businesses have changed.  Richard Gurin, President of Binney and Smith Inc. (manufacturer of Crayola crayons) noted that as new strategies, technologies and machinery transform the workplace, employees need new skills.  Employees must be able to analyze problems, generate ideas, organize, communicate effectively, work in partnership with others, and find creative solutions.  They must know the materials – whether the words in a play, the notes on a piano, the body in a dance, or the materials on the assembly line.  They must have the skill to do the work – whether acting or painting, and by doing art, they learn to perform a job effectively perform self-assessment, and develop expression and communications skills.   They must understand the task within the context around them – knowing the materials and doing the work well in context.  An education in the arts delivers precisely these skills and understandings – knowledge of materials, performance skills, and contextual understandings to make proper judgments to change things for the better in the workplace – to change things for the better.    

The arts “earn their keep” as an economic driver and the arts tell us how we fit into the world.  The arts tell us who we are as a people, from where we came and where we’re headed, what is important, and why it’s important.  It is the way we pass our values and mores, norms, customs, and taboos from one generation to the next. 

No longer should we approach our local and state politicians with our hat in hand, begging for support each year.  It is time for the Virginia General Assembly, and every City Council/Board of Supervisors to keep the promise made to the Virginia Commission for the Arts, to the students, to the residents of Virginia, and to the arts and cultural organizations that daily enrich our lives.  Business and the arts: a sound investment and a practical partnership. The payoff is a brighter future for our children, our communities, and for all of us.


Carlton Hardy is the “father” of the arts and culture license plate (Virginians for the Arts).  He has served on the boards of The Cultural Alliance of Greater Hampton Roads, the Peninsula Fine Arts Center, Young Audiences of Virginia, and he has been recognized by Equality Virginia (EV Legend) and VEER Magazine (Culturally Important People) for his leadership spanning more than 30 years as a tireless advocate for arts and cultural organizations.