Surprise, Surprise. Public Policy Forum Study Finds More Ways to Spend Taxpayer Money on Arts

January 6, 2014

by James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

The Public Policy Forum has released the first of two reports on funding the cultural institutions of Milwaukee County. The report lists the needs and wants of several of Milwaukee County’s arts organizations and county government cultural institutions while giving a picture of their financial health.

It must have been interesting research. We can imagine the phone calls to the arts organizations. “We’re looking at new ways to hand out money. How much do you want?”

Not surprisingly, every organization, including those primarily funded by government, has needs. The Public Policy Forum found $310 million in capital needs for county and privately-owned arts and cultural institutions. Of that, $197 million is for new facilities, while $113 million is for basic repair and maintenance of facilities. Privately-owned arts organizations account for $64.9 million in capital expenditures over the next four years.

Of course, there are needs, and there are, “needs.” The Milwaukee Public Museum is looking to replace the IMAX movie system with a new “immersive 3D” system for $2 million which is to come from private funds.

In addition to the capital needs, the report’s authors claim that “short-term and time-limited” public support might be needed by the Milwaukee County private arts organizations in the report. The report also calls for additional money for the Milwaukee County Zoo and the Milwaukee County Parks system.

The report is part of an attempt to spend public money, or more public money, in support of these organizations. While the report does not indicate how the public is to be additionally taxed for these organizations, on the last page of the report is a listing of how some other communities have raised taxes to pay for arts organizations, cultural institutions, and venues for professional sports teams. The report also strongly suggests that it may be difficult to get more money from Milwaukee County government for the private arts organizations given the county’s pre-existing budget constraints.

Hanging over all of this is the campaign to get a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks. The team is asking for a new arena to generate more revenue for the team so it can be “competitive.” What they mean by competitive is competing with other teams in paying ever-escalating salaries to professional athletes within the same professional basketball league that has a monopoly.

The report does not give an economic impact of any of these organizations on the local economy. The report merely repeats statements from travel websites and the travel section of the New York Times praising Milwaukee for the quality and variety of the arts programs. This is somewhat surprising since what is likely to be proposed is a regional tax which would include the counties surrounding Milwaukee County.

The report does indicate how many visitors are drawn to each of the cultural institutions, but the report does not indicate if they are from outside southeastern Wisconsin. We don’t have an idea of whether we are merely stretching the entertainment dollars of the local economy or attracting dollars from outside the region.

However, a recent UrbanMilwaukee column by Bruce Murphy trying to promote a regional tax said that just 44% of the visitors to the Milwaukee County Museum are from Milwaukee County, and just 43% of the visitors to the Milwaukee County Zoo are from Milwaukee County, but the remainder comes mainly from the surrounding counties and not outside the region. If that is the case, then Milwaukee County is benefitting from regional entertainment dollars being spent in their cultural institutions. It doesn’t follow that the economies of the surrounding counties are necessarily benefitting to the level they should be subsidizing Milwaukee County facilities.

With no measurement of the relative economic impact of each of the private cultural institutions, we can’t even be sure if it is desirable for them to start receiving subsidies. They are in direct competition with each other as well as other entertainment venues for limited entertainment dollars. But in the report, all of the cultural institutions are deemed worthy of support, even though helping one may be to the detriment of another.

As much as it would pain the arts community to hear it, it may actually be preferable to let one or more organizations fail than to have government subsidy of competition with each other.

For example, the report confirms public reports that the Milwaukee Symphony is struggling. If they not only survive but achieve their goal of having their own facility, they can perform on prime entertainment dates without fear of a scheduling conflict at the Marcus Performing Arts Center, increasing their attendance. However, their prime entertainment dates may be in direct competition with the prime entertainment dates for the Milwaukee Ballet, another organization pursuing its own venue. Given that they draw from a similar audience pool, in rescuing the Symphony with taxpayer dollars we may end up hurting the Milwaukee Ballet or another arts organization.

In addition, these arts organizations and cultural institutions compete with each other for philanthropic resources, including corporate sponsorships. The competition for corporate sponsorships also puts them in direct conflict with the professional sports teams, including the Milwaukee Bucks. Building the Bucks a new arena, with all of the potential for higher profile corporate sponsorships and the consumption of corporate entertainment dollars, may actually hurt the arts groups and public cultural institutions more than a new taxpayer subsidy would help them.

The good news for the arts lovers is that five out of the six private arts organizations are on relatively sound financial footing, and only the Milwaukee Symphony is struggling. It’s also worth noting that just a few years ago, as the report reminds us, the Milwaukee Ballet was also in rough financial shape but they reorganized and recovered.

The report does not explain why anyone outside of Milwaukee County should be expected to subsidize any of the institutions in the report, whether they’re public or private. The Public Policy Forum only cites the organizations’ needs and some good press Milwaukee County has received for having them.

It will be a tough sell to the four counties surrounding Milwaukee to subsidize a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks. It will be an even tougher sell to the residents of those counties of providing taxpayer subsidies for private arts organizations if there is no demonstrable economic benefit to them.

As for subsidizing Milwaukee County government cultural institutions, most taxpayers outside of Milwaukee County will want the County Board to get their own house in order.