Jersey City Voted to Support the Arts; Now What?

By Samuel Pott, Founding Artistic Director, Nimbus Dance

Jersey City expressed broad support for the Jersey City Arts Referendum on November 3rd, voting to institute a small percentage real estate tax that will amount to an estimated $800K to be allocated to Jersey City arts. The campaign prevailed based on the undeniable benefits that the arts provide to the community: improved quality of life, economic and tourism development, improved educational outcomes for youth, higher property values, better retention of long term residents, and more. It is gratifying to know that, even in these trying times, people recognize the value that the arts bring to the community.

Now the question of how to allocate, disburse, and ensure successful management of the funding needs to be addressed. Here are my thoughts, influenced and enhanced by many including: Meredith Burns, Justin Cosme-Perez, Hannah Weeks, Stephanie Daniels, Wendy Paul, Sharnita Johnson, Baraka Sele, Robinson Holloway, Kyle Marshall, Katelyn Halpern, Summer Dawn Reyes, and many others.

Support Diversity, Equity and Inclusion? Definitely, But Let’s Be Strategic:

Representation of diversity in all its facets (racial, cultural, religious, gender identification, and viewpoints/genres) should be supported in the arts and culture sector by highlighting diverse artistic voices, in administrative and board leadership, and, most importantly, in the people actually served by the arts in the community. The arts, especially when supported by a public funding source such as this, should not exist in an elite “ivory tower”, inaccessible to regular citizens; neither should they exist in a silo of offbeat “artiness”, events/project that serve small insular, artist crowds – disconnected from normal folks. Arts education, proven outreach to specific communities (elderly, neighborhoods, school communities), documentation of audience demographics, are ways to ensure that arts remain relevant, accessible and not exclusive.   

With the growing emphasis on greater diversity and equity in the distribution of arts funding, there has been a lot of lip service paid to these ideas. But a commitment to diversity goes deeper than a public statement of support, or a token minority artist. For true equity, diverse representation needs to be present at all levels of organizations and in the audiences served. Let’s support organizations who embody this goal and whose work is part of the solution for immersing diversity and equity in the arts sector.

Where Is the Business Plan? Let’s Move Beyond “Tax and Spend”:

The Arts Trust Fund represents a singular local investment in the arts, sorely missing in Jersey City for decades; how can we get maximum mileage out of it? Ultimately, the incoming funds from the Arts Trust will only stretch so far in making the arts available to the Jersey City community. How can artists and arts organizations leverage this funding to bring in more arts dollars to support our sector locally? Arts funding breeds more arts funding – we’ve learned that the hard way: Jersey City has been systematically disenfranchised by the state’s institutional funding sources: New Jersey State Arts Council, private foundations, and corporations who have reserved the lion’s share of their arts dollars for more established arts organizations in well-heeled (often white and suburban) portions of the state. Applicants for arts fund dollars should provide robust business plans so that we build sustainable organizations and arts businesses that move beyond a “tax and spend” mentality for the Arts Trust.

501c3 Arts Nonprofits Are Best Positioned to Make the Funding Go Far; But Aren’t the Only Structure for the Arts:

Like many crucial sectors to a healthy community (schools, hospitals, religious institutions, libraries), the arts need subsidy to survive and flourish. The 501c3 non-profit structure is specifically designed to be able to raise tax-deductible donated income to support service to the community. A for-profit, or an individual artist, cannot receive tax-deductible donations, grants from the State Arts Council or County, or most foundation grants. A 501c3 abides by multiple levels of accountability to its public service mission, which for-profits, or individuals, are not required to adhere to: annual audits, a board of directors, annual reporting. Therefore, while arts practitioners exist within a myriad of business structures, 501c3 non-profits are best suited to provide sustainable, scalable arts programming to the community – especially where programming is not viable without subsidy, such as: youth programming for low income populations, experimental arts programming, and arts genres with less mainstream attendance/support such as poetry, dance, and others. 501c3 non-profits (or applicants who operate under an umbrella non-profit) should be prioritized in the Arts Trust fund because of their ability to leverage additional funding for greater impact, and because of the accountability and transparency the non-profit structure guarantees.

At the same time, Jersey City must invest in its emerging arts organizations, artists and arts leaders so that more entities become self-sustaining and professionalized. A portion of arts trust funding should be dedicated to professional development for the field, including cohort-based learning. Arts funding is not a zero sum game: the more we support the field broadly, the larger the pool of funding grows, and the more that the community benefits from access to the arts.

Support Excellence, Support Integrity, Support Local:

Beauty may be in the eyes of the beholder, but in the field of grant-making several principles are imperative: 1) outside neutral panelists who are experts in the arts field; 2) assessment of grant applications around clear rubrics which I believe should include: artistic excellence, impact on local audiences/population, professionalism of management/finances, record of action on diversity and equity; 3) Clear, well-managed processes for grant applications and reporting that are not onerous for applicants, but ensure integrity of follow-through and expenditure of funds.

Jersey City’s history of quid pro quo politics have left many doubtful about the successful implementation of a transparent processes for the Arts Trust Fund. I support partnership with an outside entity which has the experience, track record, qualified staff, and already existing processes, to successfully manage the implementation and grant-making process. The Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation and the New Jersey Community Foundation are potential credible partner organizations that would help ensure that the Arts Trust fund is managed to achieve its goals of supporting arts in Jersey City in a transparent fashion.

A Beginning, Not an End:

The Jersey City Arts Trust potentially marks a new era for arts in Jersey City. However, transformative change to our local arts field will require much more than an injection of funds. I hope this new funding will serve as a catalyst for strategic action in the following areas:

• Greater partnership and support among Jersey City arts groups and artists

• A more meaningful role for artists and arts leaders as part of city planning decisions that impact the arts

• Increased focus on professionalizing among Jersey City’s arts organizations – including better fundraising, communications, audience development, and 501c3 incorporation. Striving for the highest standards of quality in program content should be a given. 

• Greater focus on supporting local arts groups among Jersey City’s larger institutions: Jersey City public schools (field trips, guest artists, partnerships), New Jersey City University and Saint Peter’s University, Dept of Recreation, and others.

• More funding support from Jersey City’s corporate community – especially real estate developers who benefit directly from cultural organizations in their neighborhoods

• Greater advocacy for geographic equity in funding from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and New Jersey’s private foundations.

Let’s Break out of the Arts Echo Chamber:Understandably, artists and arts groups have strong opinions about how arts funding should be distributed. The conversation within the arts community has been robust and valuable. What it has not been is inclusive of the very public that the arts funds are intended to serve. We must move beyond the silo of the arts community and incorporate input and feedback from the general public. I recommend a survey distributed widely through Jersey City to residents of all backgrounds, ages, and neighborhoods. Information gained from the “end users” of the arts funding should inform the granting process and allocations, not just vocal individuals from within the arts community.