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Is Utah upholding Brigham Young’s arts legacy?

SHARE Is Utah upholding Brigham Young’s arts legacy?

Utah territorial governor Brigham Young once said if he were stranded on a "cannibal island" and challenged to bring civilization to the natives, he would build a theater.

The arts are a vital part of Utah’s history. The pioneers arrived in Salt Lake City in 1847; plays were being produced as early as 1850. The Social Hall was one of the first buildings dedicated in 1853, with room for seating 300 people and a bust of William Shakespeare at the front. The Salt Lake Theatre was completed in 1862, before even the Salt Lake Temple, according to the Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University.

These days, Utah is one of the top states in the country for arts participation, ranking first in the nation in a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts poll for adults who attend live music, theater and dance — beating out both New York and California — and second in the nation for adults attending art exhibitions, coming in just behind Vermont. In the West, the Beehive State is ranked second (behind Wyoming) for the rate that it funds the arts per capita, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

In March, President Donald Trump announced his proposed budget, which would eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which together provide the bulk of federal funding for arts and cultural programs across the country. These proposed cuts have raised questions about how much the government should be involved in the arts and whether arts programs could survive without that support.

So how would these cuts apply to Utah? How much does Utah rely on federal or government funding in general, and how important are the arts to the state's culture?


Vicki Bourns is the director of the Utah Division of Arts and Museums. Photo Credit: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Federal funding in Utah

To start, the Utah Division of Arts and Museums, which distributes government grants to arts and cultural organizations throughout the state, receives 40 to 50 percent of its budget from the NEA.

Losing that would mean “every person or every agency that gets money from us would lose 40 percent of their funding,” said Vicki Bourns, director of the Utah Division of Arts and Museums, in an interview with the Deseret News. “I think for some groups it would be really, really difficult for them to continue. I think others could survive, but would have to really cut back.”

In general, most agree that smaller and more rural organizations would be the most affected by a loss of federal funding.

Maria Sykes, the principal of arts and culture at a nonprofit called Epicenter, said her organization in the small Utah town of Green River, Emery County, population 952, tries to get funding from plenty of private sources so it won’t collapse with every wave of political change. But the organization, which also contributes to affordable housing and other aspects of economic development in Green River, likely wouldn’t exist in the first place without a federal program.

Sykes and some of the other co-founders of Epicenter studied architecture at Auburn University in Alabama, participating in the school’s rural studio program, which encourages architects to get out of traditional urban settings and into underserved communities. Each came to Green River as an AmeriCorps VISTA, a volunteer position that pays a stipend through the federal government to serve a rural community.

“(The AmeriCorps VISTA program) is kind of always on the chopping block, basically whenever there’s a Republican president in the office, but it’s one of those things, if it went away, it would really, really affect rural communities,” Sykes said.

Epicenter has received funding from the NEA as a part of its Our Town program, which it uses for the economic development and beautifying of Green River. Recently, the funds were used to get a new welcome sign for the town, which is aimed at drawing more people to the businesses in the center of town and not just the gas stations on the fringes.

According to the Utah Cultural Alliance, $11 million of federal funds have come into Utah’s cultural organizations through the NEA, NEH, IMS and CPB.

“Government funding is more likely to reach rural and underserved communities than do some of the private foundations that tend to give more to urban organizations,” said Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, of the Utah Legislature. “My perception is government funding is more equitable.”


Balancing public and private funding

Epicenter isn’t the only arts organization that seeks to balance its funding between private and government sources.

“I would say that every nonprofit organization is like a three-legged stool,” said Laurel Alder, grants manager at the Utah Division of Arts and Museums. “One leg is government funding, another leg is corporate foundation funding and the third is earned income.”

Government and private funds often feed off each other. Many government grants require that organizations match the amount they are asking for from other sources. It is often also because of reputable government grants that organizations are able to receive more private funding. According to Americans for the Arts, every dollar that the federal government contributes to cultural organizations generates $9 in private and public funding.

“For every dollar that we get from a government grant or from a legislature, it translates into more dollars from the private sector,” said Joshua Stavros, media and public relations manager for the Utah Shakespeare Festival. “It shows a commitment to the engagement and a validation of our work — that it’s fiscally sound and good for its community.”

While many organizations don’t rely wholly upon government funding, that money often represents an important part of their budgets.

“I think every nonprofit, not just arts and culture, is going to say that they need funding,” said Megan Attermann, grant and communication program manager for the Salt Lake County Zoo, Arts and Parks program. “Nobody is feeling like they’ve got plenty to spare.”

The Utah Symphony and Utah Opera have an annual budget of $23 million going into the 2017-18 season, and 21 percent of that funding comes from public sources, according to usuo.org. A lot of that public funding goes directly back into the community through the USUO's educational programs. Both the Utah Symphony and the Utah Opera perform in every school district in the state on a rotating three- to four-year basis.

The Shakespeare Festival has a similar educational program that also relies heavily on government funding, including money from the NEA, to take Shakespeare productions to schools and communities in the southwest regions of the state.

“If that funding went away, we would not be able to go to those cities, or nearly as many cities, and our outreach and our connectivity to the community would in that sense drop significantly,” Stavros said.

“There are so many children who have never had the opportunity without these kinds of programs to see the symphony, to see the opera, and this is important,” said Arent. “The arts are an important part of education.”

A study from the Arts Education Partnership showed that children given music education did better in math, reading and writing.

“If kids can’t write and communicate and don’t have other arts backgrounds, they’re not going to be successful scientists and mathematicians,” said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, referring to the recent emphasis on STEM education.

Janna Lauer is the executive director of the nonprofit Heart and Soul, which brings live music performances to isolated people in convalescent homes, senior centers, hospitals, prisons, etc. She said while public funding only represents 15 percent of her organization’s budget, this money is the backbone Heart and Soul relies on to survive. While foundations can change their mind year by year about how much they want to donate, the government more consistently supplies Heart and Soul with the money it needs to continue.

Government funding often helps supply the operations money for arts organizations — money that buys paper clips and keeps the lights on that, while essential, can sometimes be harder to come by.

“A lot of people or different groups, they want to fund something that’s showy, like a new building — the sexy stuff,” Bourns said.

Some rural organizations can also have a difficult time getting private funding. Sykes said many foundations in Utah, for example, only serve the Wasatch Front.

By the numbersCreate your own infographicsLocal government funding

Salt Lake County does have one major advantage when it comes to arts funding — the Zoo, Arts and Parks program, which puts one-tenth of 1 percent of sales taxes toward arts and cultural organizations in the county. This allows for a lot of additional funding that otherwise would not be available.

The ZAP program in 2014 was able to distribute $13.9 million in Salt Lake County, according to slco.org/zap. The Utah Division of Arts and Museums, by contrast, distributed $1.7 million throughout the entire state in 2016, according to heritage.utah.gov. Alder said that for the most part UDAM is forced to “spread the butter very thin.”

“We tend to fund a lot of applications very shallowly,” Alder said. “We give a lot of small grants” because UDAM is trying to serve the entire state.


According to Attermann, the ZAP program funded about 180 organizations last year. The model of consumer taxes contributing to the arts is fairly unique to Utah and has received a lot of support locally.

In 2014, the tax was renewed by vote and passed by 77 percent — the most popular item on the ballot that year other than candidates who ran unopposed, according to both Bourns and Alder.

“I think that bodes well that our community values arts and cultural activities and they’re willing to open up their pocketbook for it,” Bourns said.

Both Bourns and Alder also said that they saw government arts funding decrease significantly during the recession in 2009 and to this day have not seen it come all the way back up to what it was pre-recession.

Alder also said local arts organizations have anecdotally reported that corporations are stagnating in their contributions.

“You’ve got cost-of-living expenses, you’ve got cost-of-operation expenses that are increasing, and you have the state that has been stagnant for 20 years; you have corporations that are stagnant in their giving, and so it’s becoming increasingly difficult for art organizations to function when you don’t have growth that keeps up with the cost of a business,” Alder said.

Utah state Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, noted that maintaining a balanced budget is in the Utah Constitution, a fact he tells to everyone who comes to the appropriations committee asking for money. He said every organization is put through a rigorous vetting process before it receives any of the citizens’ tax dollars, and the state government won’t go into debt to give them that money.

“If (arts organizations) can get private funding, we love to have that first,” he said. “The less government involvement we have to have, the better.”


Private funding

Certainly most people in Utah have heard of the Eccles, the Hales, the Sorensons and other major foundations that have contributed heavily to the state's arts community.

“We know that opportunities in the arts enhance all our lives,” said Lisa Eccles, president and COO of the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, in an emailed statement. “They are important not only to our citizens now, but will continue to help build the economic and cultural vitality of our state throughout the future.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continues to support arts culture in Utah as well. Today, the LDS Church officially donates to Ballet West, the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera, the Hale Centre Theatre and the Utah Festival Opera in Logan. It also contributed to the new George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater on Main Street, which Presiding Bishop Gerald Causse called “a unique culmination of art, science, technology and culture” in a statement released by the church.

Leslie Peterson, developmental vice president of the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera, said she’s grateful for the LDS Church’s example in promoting the local arts community.

“They themselves are extraordinarily generous in supporting that quality of life that we enjoy to the educational opportunities that are provided to young people throughout the state,” she said.

When private groups contribute to organizations, the donations are usually meant overall as a way to support the organization, not to dictate or approve of the organization's content.

Stavros said the Shakespeare Festival's development team is always making sure it is helping its donors understand what they are spending their money on.

“Even if someone might think that they have their strings attached, that’s part of the ongoing conversation to keep them connecting to the work and to art,” he said.


Spencer Eccles and his daughter Lisa Eccles stand in the new Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016. Photo Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Why the arts matter

If arts organizations can’t raise enough money themselves through ticket sales, like sports can, why do they deserve to have it given to them by the government and private foundations?

Those who support the arts have a few reasons, one of which is economic development.

The Shakespeare Festival, for example, brings upwards of $35 million to the state every year, according to a 2012 study by Neil Abercrombie and Kelly Matthews.

“Every ticket we sell, every show that someone comes down and sees, they’re also eating at restaurants and booking hotel rooms and shopping in our stores,” Stavros said. “The net economic benefit to the festival producing the way that it does and as long and as large as it does is a huge factor for the community and for the city. It’s an economic stimulus. There’s a return on investment.”

According to an analysis from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and the NEA, the arts and cultural sector represents 3.2 percent, or $504 billion, of the nation’s gross domestic product, a larger share of the economy than tourism.

A strong arts community also attracts people and businesses to the state.

“If you have a corporate executive who is relocating their family from New York to Salt Lake City, one of the things they’re going to be looking at is going to be: Is there a place where they can have their kids take theater class? Is there a place where they are going to be able to take their family for a celebration? Is there a place where they can serve on the board of a cultural organization?” Alder said. “That opportunity to interact with arts where they are … is incredibly important.”

Moss agreed. “All these big high-tech companies coming to Utah, to Silicon Slopes, they wouldn’t be coming here if we didn’t have some of these amenities as cultural advantages,” she said.


According to Alder, Utah is one of about a dozen states in the nation that has a full professional symphony and one of the few Western states with a professional ballet.

“We like to think that we are a calling card for Utah, a cultural ambassador to the rest of the country and, indeed, even beyond the country,” Peterson said of the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera.

Small organizations like Epicenter in Green River might not be able to have a huge economic impact on the state as a whole, but the difference they make to their communities is proportionately significant.

“Let’s say (Epicenter) affects 60 percent of the residents in Green River,” Sykes said. “And then there’s a nonprofit up in Salt Lake City that only affects 5 percent of the entire community — that’s the difference … the impact you’re making on the entire or the majority of your community when you’re working in a rural place.”

Arent told a story of Maurice Abravanel, who conducted the Utah Symphony for 30 years and died in 1993. When the NEA was under attack decades ago, he testified in Washington and had 30 seconds to respond to the question of why the arts are necessary. He said, “For the same reason your farmers plant flowers.”

“Utah has always loved the arts since the pioneers,” Moss said. “Some people think that the arts are frivolous, but they’re a part of our culture and the fabric of our lives. We’d lose much of our history and our cultural background without them.”