Dec. 1 marked the 10-year anniversary of Oregon's cultural tax credit, an extraordinarily effective incentive to contribute to the cultural life of the state's people and visitors. Because the credit, in effect, empowers Oregon arts patrons to earmark some of their tax dollars for the arts and cultural preservation, it predictably comes under fire when the general fund is strapped. The Legislature will have some tough choices to make when it convenes in February. Eliminating the tax credit should not be among them.
The Oregon Cultural Trust was established in 2001, a time when schools and hospitals had reserved seats at the dinner table and cultural institutions begged for sustenance. Drivers of the trust, including the late Ben Westlund, a longtime Tumalo businessman and legislator, designed it as a stable public-private funding stream to preserve and promote heritage, culture and the arts throughout Oregon.
The vision has become a modest reality. The Cultural Trust has grown to a $17 million permanent fund that distributes about $1.5 million in grants annually. Through its grants to statewide partners, county and tribal coalitions, and heritage, arts and humanities nonprofits, the Cultural Trust supports projects ranging from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and OPB's "Oregon Experience" production to The Nature of Words' literary festivals and the High Desert Museum's exhibits on natural and cultural history.
Even with the trust, Oregon is no diva of arts and culture. The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies ranked Oregon 31st in per capital spending ($.50) on the arts and 36th in state arts agency revenue per capital ($.79) for fiscal 2011. But there are those who would imperil our slightly less-than-shameful standing by eliminating the tax credit that powers the trust. Why, critics ask, should people who treasure museums and arts festivals get to enrich them with revenue that might otherwise go to roads and public safety?
That question goes to deeply held values. Under the law, someone who has contributed $100 to, say, Central Oregon's Artist in Schools program this year can claim a $100 tax credit by donating the same amount to the Cultural Trust. Why would an Oregonian do that instead of sending an unrestricted tax payment to Salem for distribution by the Legislature?
One taxpayer may do so in gratitude for the son whose wild energy and dark boredom so impeded his learning that he nearly dropped out of school—until that summer when he took an acting workshop and discovered an endeavor in which he could flourish, a world in which his intensity is valued and honored, and began to approach life with engaging enthusiasm. Another, moved by her tribe's resuscitation of its ancestral language and dance, may hope that her contribution to the trust will help others honor and carry on their own heritage.
For such people, arts and culture are not marginal to life: They are roots of lives redeemed and invigorated. Whether they give the cost of a lunch or the proceeds from the sale of a boat, these patrons contribute to the Cultural Trust to relieve acute poverty of soul, and to fund the purchase of cherished gifts—a ballet created in public view, the restoration of the last surviving PT boat used in World War II—that will pique the fascination and stir the artistry of their children's children's children.
The beneficiaries of Cultural Trust grants are essentials, not luxuries and diversions, and must be protected as such. The arts humanize us, expand our minds, strengthen our hearts, touch, rattle and inspire us, stimulate and discipline us, foster collaboration, wake us up. Cultural heritage sites and programs teach us how we have become who we are that we might wisely imagine our next chapter into being.
Not everybody gets that. On behalf of those who do, here's a boot to the pants of those who would sell the taproot of our cultural heritage for a mess of pottage.