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December 30, 2008

Why not lottery money for the arts?

As 2008 grinds to a halt, leaving an awful wake of bad economic news, and with 2009 looking just as bleak, the cultural world is feeling more vulnerable than ever. Yesterday (I know I'm late, but I'm still on vacation), Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser wrote a typically well-argued op-ed piece in the Washington Post calling for some sort of bailout for the arts. I'd love to see that happen, but I certainly won't hold my breath.

It would probably take an organized action by hundreds of arts organizations and thousands of arts patrons to get the attention of the politicians. Such an action might help more people to realize what this country will be losing, how much long-term damage to our internal worth this country will suffer if opera and ballet companies, orchestras and theater troupes get squeezed out by the economy.

Meanwhile, I can't help but wonder about all that money gathered in so many states every week by lotteries, supposedly in support of education. Personally, I have my doubts about how much of that money actually gets to schools and makes a real difference in their quality, but I know that even modest amounts of cash can do wonders for an arts group. So why not, during these unusually tough times, set aside a decent percentage, say 25 percent, of lottery-generated money to the arts? After all, those groups invariably have educational/outreach programs, which are in jeapardy when budgets shrink, so this kind of funding would still help fulfill the supposed educational mission of lotteries. In the U.K., lottery revenue has helped to build theaters and underwrite orchestras, operas, museums and more. I think it's time to explore the possibilities here.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:37 AM | | Comments (3)


Brilliant idea!

We can just furlough state employees another 20 days to make up the $125 million lost to Maryland's general fund. I'm sure they wouldn't mind subsidizing the entertainment needs of the predominantly wealthy.

Try something new. That elitist/wealthy charge about the arts hasn't held water since the 17th century.TS

What a great idea! I know that some countries -England if I am not mistaken is one of them- use some of their lottery earnings to subsidize opera companies, symphony orchestras and other cultural institutions.

Greater subsidies could bring ticket prices down and make the arts more affordable to the general public. The lottery based subsidy could also come with strings attached -group that receives such subsidy must tour, present free activities and partner with schools to further art education. I am sure bureaucrats will come up with some neat formula based on the amount of the subsidy and the size of the organization receiving the funds. This would both help institutions, enrich the cultural life of state and improve education creating future generations of concert, opera, theater, museum, etc. goers...

I hope someone picks up on the idea!

The arts have done a very poor job of pointing out the economic value there is in a symphony or opera company. We spent a gazillion dollars to build a stadium downtown that hosts 15 or 20 events a year. While a football team's payroll might be a tad higher than a symphony's (and there are more degree holders on the payroll at the symphony, but that's another hobby horse) I'm betting the symphony has more employees who live here year round. The significance of this is the multiplier effect of money going into the local economy. Each dollar paid goes through the local economy several times: food, utilities and other life needs are bought, wages paid to the workers selling those goods who in turn buy stuff and the cycle continues. The same thing applies to taxes paid.

So, between the BSO and BOC (hopefully coming back) you probably had almost 200 local employees. Can the Ravens or Orioles make the same claim? Add in the employees at the Walters and the BMA and the numbers swell. (I don't mean to slight small groups, I'm just grabbing big numbers.)

The bottom line: sports teams and politicians make economic arguments to support the billions spent on stadia, but what would be the payback if even a small portion of that money was put into local arts? Think what the BSO could do with an extra $10 million or so a year. Much of that money would go right back into the local economy. Consider what a big opera company would pump into the local economy.

Look at the hoops state and local governments jump through to attract a business that will add 80 or 100 jobs to the local economy. For 300 or 400 jobs you can have the governor's and mayor's first born. Hundred of millions are thrown at the business.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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