Feature article by Ann Dorn, Tacoma Symphony Orchestra

The Cultural Access Fund promises to power economic growth and make arts and culture more accessible, while ensuring access to vibrant arts and cultural experiences across all communities in Tacoma.

Will Tacoma residents vote for it this fall?

Fifth-grade students and members of the Lakewood Boys and Girls Club file into the club gym on a damp and gray Thursday after school, scanning the semi-circle of chairs arranged around Matt Drumm and Denali Williams’ percussion instruments. It’s not what they’re used to seeing in the gym and both the quality and quantity brought for this event by Symphony Tacoma’s professional musicians far eclipses what is available in area school music programs. Deep-toned and punchy bongo drums, clear-as-a-bell chimes, a Middle Eastern tabla and a stately African djembé are present, along with more easily recognized instruments such as tambourines and drums.

Eyes wide, students take their seats, unsure what this new world of music holds. “These are the same instruments I play for the Symphony,” Denali Williams explains, picking up a drum.

Williams offers the djembé to a young man, who accepts it eagerly, his fingers beginning to tap the surface the moment he’s holding it. “Have you played this? On stage? With people watching?” he inquires. Williams nods. “You bet. With over a thousand people watching, and with over 70 musicians making the greatest music you can imagine. It’s incredible.” The young man’s eyes light up. “Wow,” he says in a quiet voice, staring at the instrument.


The Cultural Access Fund: contributing to a vibrant community built around the arts

It’s not difficult to imagine that for some children, an encounter with a musical instrument and professional players might plant a seed of inspiration leading to a lifelong love for music. For others, it’s the experience of creating glass art, painting, guided educational play, or any number of arts, culture and science experiences that ignites an interest and fuels curiosity and learning. Nonprofit organizations that send programming out into the community, or in some cases, finding the funds to open them to the public at no charge, can offer life-changing experiences for children and adults—an initiative slated to be presented to Tacoma voters this fall promises to help make this happen.

As a result of the efforts of countless community volunteers, the Washington State legislature passed a law in 2015 allowing any county or city to ask voters to enact a sales or property tax with the resulting revenue creating a pool of money to be distributed to local cultural, science and heritage organizations—a Cultural Access Fund.

The tax is capped, would have to renewed by the voters every seven years, and is modest.  For example, the sales tax, limited to .1% or a penny for every $10 dollars of sales would cost the average household in Tacoma $13 per year.  There are many public benefits.  Studies done in other communities who have adopted a similar arts and cultural program, such as Denver, demonstrate the creation of new jobs and increased cultural spending by visitors.  In addition to bringing in tourism dollars, Denver institutions were able to add programming targeted at households that might not otherwise have access, making the benefits of arts, science and culture accessible to the wider community, and improving the quality of life, so that it’s importance is viewed in the same way as other critical issues like affordable housing or health care.

Children’s Museum Executive Director Tanya Durand is one of the individuals leading the charge to bring the initiative to voters, along with Broadway Center for the Performing Arts Executive Director David Fischer and members of the Arts & Culture Coalition of Pierce County. Durand says she feels the Cultural Access Fund is a natural fit for Tacoma. She points out that Tacoma is second in the nation to Washington D.C. for cultural and heritage institutions per capita, and notes that it’s not an accident—City leaders made a decision to woo museums and cultural institutions many years ago, as an economic and tourism boost, but also as a way to intentionally shape a growing community into an extraordinary place to live.

Durand goes on to say, “I think we’re fiercely proud as a community and already have this leaning toward the funky, creative, the gritty. In my mind, this is about elevating that value and saying ‘this is important to us’. People preserve things they think are important. Look at the great cities people love to visit—Paris, Rome, New York—and what they preserve are the arts and culture.”


Tacoma citizens to help shape programming and access to arts and culture

Money from the Cultural Access Fund would be distributed according to policies set by an administrative board formed by the Tacoma City Council.  The City of Tacoma’s Office of Arts and Cultural Vitality would be the organization managing and disbursing the money. Durand says larger entities would likely receive a portion of their operating budgets, while smaller events and grassroots organizations might receive one-time grants and other supplemental funding.

Durand says she believes the creation of a Cultural Access Fund will result in greater innovation and will help secure Tacoma’s place as an important cultural center in the region.  She emphasizes that the program is uniquely tailored to build on Tacoma’s cultural assets, and the spirit of creativity that shapes Tacoma’s identity, “The program’s design starts with the community.  We’re going to go to artists and people in their neighborhoods,” Durand says, explaining that the task force is also creating an “asset map” to better understand where local organizations are currently offering programs, and to ask them what they would do with additional resources.

The task force is also working closely with Tacoma Public Schools and Metro Parks to assess student and community needs and how additional institutional programming could work to support after-school and neighborhood programs.

“If the initiative passes, cultural and arts organizations will be held to a very high standard,” Durand says. “We’re looking at this as a contract with the taxpayers. What deliverables would they like from us?” she asks. “I hope our community has trust in us to steward these funds because at the end of the day it’s really about opening more doors for our families and children and building the kind of community in which everyone will benefit,” she finishes.

Tacoma voters will decide whether to approve the creation of a Cultural Access Fund in November 2018.