The Durham Arts Funding Reform Proposal: what happened two years ago?

Durham artist Alyssa Noble, speaking to Council on October 24, 2019, as part of the artist-organized speaker series.


First things first: here is the proposal itself, now posted for public access.

Second: I’ve been meaning to write this summary for a long time, and I apologize to the Durham community for not doing so sooner. I’m writing it now because members of DCAB (the Durham Cultural Advisory Board) are meeting with Durham County and City officials next week to advocate for a new Cultural Master Plan, partly using the proposal in their presentation, so I thought it would be a good time to finally sit down and get this out.

Here’s what happened:

In early 2018, I and two fellow artists (Monét Noelle Marshall and Ashley Melzer) became dismayed at how quickly we were losing treasured independent arts institutions around Durham, due to rising rent; how the city was benefiting so much from its “arts scene” but doing very little to protect or nurture it, especially in comparison to its peer cities; and how long this had been a problem, with artists raising alarms and no meaningful response from the city. We spoke at a City Council work session that spring, but again, nothing happened. So in the summer of 2019, after we lost The Carrack, I started organizing local artists to speak at every City Council work session for the next four months.

This series is archived in its entirety here, with many artists volunteering to speak, and many artists showing up to support them (dressed in purple!). I remain forever grateful to everyone who came. Thank you.

That October, midway through the speaker series, three of the artists who’d spoken–myself, Akiva Fox, and Marshall Botvinick–sat down to draft a proposal that would distill the artists’ expressed concerns into a workable proposal. We aimed to submit it to City Council for consideration for its 2021-22 budget. (How this working group crystallized is detailed in the Appendix C of the proposal–again, link here.)

To summarize very briefly, the proposal asked the city to allot $1.325 million dollars–an amount comparable to investments made by our peer cities, to their artists–to a new direct granting program for both artist organizations and individual artists. The three keystones of the proposal were: (1) racial equity, wherein at least half of all monies would dedicated to artists of color and artist organizations of color; (2) a living wage for all labor done (e.g., no one would be asked to “volunteer” for evaluation panels); and (3) a hybrid lottery system, to eliminate evaluator bias. We met with and obtained statements of support from our proposed administrative partners, Hayti Heritage Center and the Durham Arts Council; and also gained full support from the Durham Cultural Advisory Board, which advises City Council on the arts.

After rounds of staff and community feedback, we submitted the final version of the proposal to City Council in February 2020. We believed we had enough support across City Council for at least partial funding of the proposal, even after the departure of Council Member Alston, who had been a valued collaborator from the beginning.

Then two major crises came to the fore: McDougald Terrace and Covid.

You can listen to the full City Council discussion of the proposal here, starting at 1:55:13. What we hoped for was true–that several members of Council, possibly even a majority, supported at least partial funding of the proposal. However, Council Members Freeman and Middleton argued that the McDougald Terrace emergency was more important, that this arts movement was much more “recent,” and that it would look bad to fund any part of the arts proposal in light of that crisis.

Speaking for myself, though I respect their decisions, I was frustrated with Council Member Middleton’s assertion that discontent in the Durham arts community was a recent phenomenon, rather than the capstone of a decade of sounding alarms that had gone unheard by Council. I’ll also note that Council Member Middleton was the only Member who did not reply to repeated requests for meetings (emails from me alone dated 20 March 2018, 21 October 2019, and 3 February 2020). All other Council Members had met with us and given us valuable feedback, for which we are very grateful.

In any case: the McDougald and Covid crises wiped out the city budget for that fiscal year. And everyone went into lockdown. And Akiva, Marshall, and I were completely burned out. And that was that.

However, I’ve been really encouraged to hear from colleagues on DCAB that they’ve used our proposal as a basis to move forward on related projects. If anyone wants to use the proposal as a template for advocacy–in Durham, or anywhere–please do. We believe it outlines a vision for a progressive relationship between artists and their city. One last time, here it is. Thanks, Durham.

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