Speaking Out for the Arts in New Jersey

Laura Aden Packer, Program Director, Arts


In Greek mythology Sisyphus was a king who was punished for eternity: condemned to roll an enormous boulder uphill, only to watch it roll back down again.

This story has been played out here in New Jersey over the last 20 years by the nonprofit arts industry as it has been condemned, year after year, to fight an uphill battle for restoration and/or growth of public funding. As a founding board member of ArtPride/NJ, the arts advocacy organization started back in 1987, I have borne witness year after year to this never-ending struggle, and I find myself constantly wondering what else can be done to ensure that the incalculable value of cultural programming is fully understood.

There was some hope a few years back. In 2003, in the face of the possibility of complete elimination of public funding for the arts, the New Jersey Legislature wisely created a dedicated and recurring source of funding for arts, history and tourism from a new hotel/motel occupancy fee. A minimum of $16 million was guaranteed for the New Jersey State Council on the Arts from that fee, which last year generated over $80 million – most of which goes to the state’s general coffers and municipalities.

nj-arts-council-logoAs the revenue from the tax grew, the intention of the Legislature was to increase funding of the Arts Council as well. According to the terms of the legislation, the Arts Council should have been funded at $22.68 million this year, but the appropriation was only $19.25 million. And now, facing unprecedented fiscal challenges, the Governor has proposed that arts funding be cut to $14.45 million in 2010.

However, in order to protect New Jersey’s nonprofit arts organizations from the vagaries of economy turmoil, the Legislature added a “poison pill” provision to the law that created the hotel/motel occupancy tax. The provision states that if funding for the Arts Council falls below $16 million, the hotel/motel occupancy fee is totally rescinded, and the tens of millions of dollars from that fee that go directly to the state and municipalities can also no longer be collected.

Where is the sense in cutting the arts below this established threshold, when so much is at stake for the arts in New Jersey as well as for the revenue that goes to your local municipalities? The difference is a mere $1.55 million in a multi-billion dollar budget.

Nonprofit organizations throughout the state are already reeling from the global economic crisis, losing millions in contributed support and earned revenue. Arts leaders and their boards have been quick to curtail expenditures and to continue to function in economically responsible ways. But the impact of further cuts from the public sector will be destabilizing and possibly devastating to these artistic treasures that make up the cultural fabric of our state and our communities.

The arts in New Jersey are an indispensable facet of what makes our State an incredible place to live, work and play through the cultural enrichment provided by astonishing performances and exhibits, outreach to the poorest schools and thousands of the neediest children in our state, and over $1.5 billion in economic impact.

artpride-2What will it take to persuade our political leaders now, and in the future, that the arts are not a frill but that, in fact, the arts are a part of the solution to our economic woes?

Visit the ArtPride website to find out more about how you can help New Jersey’s arts community communicate the variety of ways in which the arts are making a difference in the lives of New Jerseyans from Cape May to High Point.

Let’s leave Sisyphus where he belongs – in Greek Mythology. This is a case where life has imitated art for too long, and at too high a cost.

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6 Responses to Speaking Out for the Arts in New Jersey

  1. Thank you so much for your powerful statement about the arts. I believe that the arts are the at the heart of any well functioning society. By experiencing the arts we are able to cultivate empathy for fellow human beings and for ourselves, learn from our triumphs and tragedies , comprehend and value diverse belief systems and take the initiative to work as creators of a fair and just civilization.

    We are so grateful for the leadership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and strive to emulate its efforts to create a better world for all of us as well as for our planet.

  2. The arts are a vital part of civil society, a source of expression, creativity, solace and, as we all know economic activity. A failure to fund the NJ State Council on the Arts at least at the $16 million minimum level is a shunning of past good-faith commitments and a disgrace for this state.

  3. Nina Stack says:

    Excellent comments. As one has come to expect, the Dodge Foundation remains a tireless, inspiring, articulate advocate, teacher, and leader for our state’s well being. Thank you Geraldine and thank you Laura!

  4. Michael Dundon says:

    While the vitality of the arts in New Jersey should be a no-brainer for most, not everyone is aware of the provisions which surround the hotel/motel occupancy tax. Thank you for clearly pointing our what is at stake here for all New Jerseyans, even if you have never stepped into a theatre, museum or concert hall. Although I find that nearly impossible since one cannot travel a mile in this State without passing a world-class performing arts center or award-winning museum.

  5. Thank you, Laura, for your passionate wisdom. ArtPride NJ will continue to inform and incite (or excite) arts advocates to the best of its ability. Clearly our job, to create or increase awareness of the value of the arts, is not done. The Dodge Foundation’s support is invaluable toward that end. At some point we hope that rock either gets lighter or the hill levels out. Maybe then there won’t be arbitrary comparisons between funding the arts and healthcare and the connections between sectors will be more clearly visible.

  6. bonnie monte says:

    Laurie’s message is eloquent, passionate, persuasive and riddled with common sense. How can we send her words careening out to a broader audience? They are a clarion call to action.

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