More than a dozen representatives of theater and other artistic organizations attended today’s D.C. Council hearing on Mayor Vincent Gray‘s budget for the 2012 fiscal year to oppose the proposed imposition of a 6 percent sales tax on theater, gallery, and performance tickets.
The mayor’s budget proposal called for “expand[ing] the sales tax base to include live theater.” The 2012 Budget Support Act, introduced today by Council Chairman Kwame Brown, broadens it to all “live performances.”
Following witnesses speaking on other proposed sales taxes, four of the arts advocates made their case before the Council shortly after noon. Linda Harper, executive director of Cultural Tourism DC, was quick to point out that the tax—which is often called a “theater tax”—would apply to all arts admissions. The city’s definition what “live performance” is so loose, Harper said, that it would levy an additional 6 percent on the cost of museum admissions, church concerts, and school plays in addition to professional theaters. Federal institutions such as the Kennedy Center and the IMAX theaters at the National Museum of Natural History and the Air and Space Museum would be exempt.
“We will once again let the elephant in the room off the hook as we will not be able to tax federal arts providers and ticket sellers,” added Harper, who said her group represents more than 230 arts and tourism organizations across Washington. She also suggested to the council that theatergoers and museum attendees would be encouraged by a ticket tax to eschew District venues in favor of the Artisphere or Signature Theatre in Arlington or Strathmore in Bethesda.
Another major point of contention for the panelists was how a new tax would be collected. Linda Levy Grossman, president and CEO of the Helen Hayes Awards, accused city officials of rushing the tax proposal without considering its oversight.
“We fear that there was a serious lack of due diligence,” Grossman told the five council members present, including Brown. “The ambiguities of this legislation are vast and the imprudence regarding its impact is alarming.”
Organizations who would fall under the ticket tax, Grossman said, might not have the human resources required to separate tax proceeds from overall ticket sales. Furthermore, Grossman and others questioned how the city would keep track of what constitutes a “live performance” venue if the tax did in fact apply to events like school plays and church concerts.
“How are they going to know a church in Southwest is having a jazz concert?” asked Dorothy McSweeny, the chair emeritus of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, after leaving the hearing.
After hitting the proposed tax for its logistical shortcomings, the panelists focused most on organizational survival and public access to the arts. Step Afrika! director Brian Williams said that rather than the cost of the sales tax being “passed on” to his patrons, his organization and others would more likely absorb the burden.
“All of the research on marketing for arts organizations points to the fact that ticket prices are a major barrier to entry,” he said. Williams added that one series his company performs sells for $20 per ticket but has a production cost of $88 per seat. Step Afrika! already hustles between sponsors and donors to cover the $68 gap. Williams estimated a 6 percent sales tax would cost his group $5,000 a week. “Luckily, we only produce such a performance in the District for two weeks. But for my colleagues who run small theaters and produce 15 weeks a year, this could cost them $75,000 a year.” That amount, he said, is equal to the cost of two full-time employees for city arts organizations.
The panelists and their supporters got an unexpected jumpstart from Doug Rowe, a District resident who spoke a few hours earlier about how the proposed tax would make the cultural scene more restrictive. Rowe, who makes roughly $27,000 a year working in retail and volunteers at the Washington Bach Consort and the Shakespeare Theatre Company, said his limit for a ticket is about $30, though if prices were to increase due to a sales tax, he would be forced to reconsider his patronage.
“The arts is not the place to look for money when balancing the budget,” he said.
Grossman said the “inaccurate assumption” that arts patrons have the spare cash to pay more for a ticket “further perpetuates the erroneous assumption that arts are for the wealthy.” She labeled as “short-sighted” Gray’s comments to Kojo Nnamdi and Tom Sherwood on WAMU last Friday in which the mayor said “theaters really are the only ones that don’t have that tax imposed. I mean, we have it at the Verizon Center and we have it at the baseball stadium…we have it on movies.”
“The arts are not commercial ventures,” Grossman retorted today.
Every council member expressed some level of opposition to the tax in a round of question-free statements. “It’s tough to hear about seeing your kid’s school play and being taxed,” said Brown, whose position on the tax is still viewed as more neutral.
Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans was more stinging.
“The arts add to an otherwise black and white canvas and without the arts you have nothing,” said Evans, who also lamented the current level of arts funding—$3.92 million requested for fiscal 2012 not counting the federal government’s proposed transfer of $5 million to the District from the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts. “I’m so disappointed in our city. There was a conscious decision that this city government is no longer going to support the arts. And we’re gonna tax you!”