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A Sales Tax for the Arts in Philadelphia? Grad Student's Thesis Proposes One

January 31, 2014

Lindsey Crane

The arts drew Lindsey Crane to Philadelphia, and they’re what caused her to stay after she finished graduate school.

That strong allure of arts and culture, she said, is an important factor to remember when considering a proposal put forth in her recently completed Drexel master’s thesis: a dedicated tax to support the arts and culture in Philadelphia.

If you’ve never heard of such a thing before, you’re not alone. Crane herself was unfamiliar with the idea of an arts-and-culture tax until she read an article about one in Denver in one of her Drexel courses.

“My next thought, aside from it being interesting, was, ‘Oh, they should really have one of those here,’ ” said Crane, who in fall 2013 earned her master’s in arts administration from the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.

After she learned that Philadelphia arts leaders had actually pushed for such a tax in the area for more than 20 years, she decided to make the tax idea the subject of her master’s thesis. She interviewed some 25 area arts leaders to learn about why those attempts hadn’t succeeded and what could be done to make an arts tax possible.

“There are great people in this city contributing to the arts, and great foundations contributing to the arts, and that’s fabulous,” Crane said. “But I think a lot of us would like to see the public funding increase, even just a little bit.”

Since the economic downturn, annual arts and culture grants from the city-funded Philadelphia Cultural Fund have declined from a high of more than $3 million to about $1.7 million. The recession also made people even less resistant than before to a pitch for a new tax, Crane said. But she outlined a plan in her thesis that she thinks could stand a chance.

One key, she said, would be focusing a tax on Philadelphia County (which has the same boundaries as the city) only. Previous attempts at an arts tax have aimed at the entire five-county Philadelphia region. But almost half of the area’s arts and culture organizations are concentrated in the city, she said, and it would be easier to gain approval from one county for a sales tax than from five.

“In Philadelphia County, we could see significant support for something like this,” Crane said.

She also proposed a sales tax, rather than a tax on property, income or anything else. That would make for an easier sell to city residents, she said.

“It’s not just the citizens who are paying — any visitor to the area would have to,” Crane said.

An obstacle would be that Pennsylvania state law allows counties to increase local sales taxes only with state approval, Crane said. Also, she said, leaders of the arts-tax movement could do a better job of communicating the benefits of publicly funded art.

One of the major benefits, she said, is making the city a place where people want to move — or a place where people want to stay after they finish school. The city’s arts scene — along with the strength of the Drexel Arts Administration program — is what convinced her to come to the city in the first place after earning her bachelor’s degree from William & Mary in Virginia.

And the arts have kept her around. She’s now the managing director for the Philadelphia organization Intercultural Journeys, which aims to use art to promote understanding and peace between different cultures.

An arts tax, Crane said, would help organizations big and small flourish, and help make Philadelphia even more of a destination.

“I think we would just see the creative vitality, and the city’s vitality in general, grow brighter,” Crane said.

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