A Proposition to Aid Olympia’s Art and Nonprofit Community

By Molly Walsh

Olympia’s art and nonprofit communities are banding together in support of a new ballot measure that could have a profound effect on art, culture, science and heritage programming within the city. If voted into law, Proposition 1 would increase sales taxes within the City of Olympia by a tenth of a percent to fund a “Cultural Access Program.” Proceeds would directly benefit Olympia’s many art and nonprofit organizations. If it passes, the community could see millions of dollars in increased funding for theaters, museums, art installations, science centers and other community-oriented nonprofits in the coming years. Olympians will vote on the measure on the April 26 ballot.

To gather support for the measure, local creators launched the campaign, dubbed “Inspire Olympia!” Proponents of Proposition 1 are working to spread awareness around Olympia’s art and nonprofit communities and show how this measure would benefit nonprofit organizations and Olympia residents.

Jill Barnes, executive director of the Washington Center for Performing Arts and a member of the Inspire Olympia! steering committee, said, “There are numerous opportunities and benefits known and imagined with the passage of Inspire Olympia! Not only will more hands-on learning opportunities in arts, culture, heritage and science be readily available for school-aged children and all families, it will support a network of creatives and encourage collaboration in ways that weren’t previously feasible.”

In 2015, the state of Washington passed a law that would allow cities to vote on the formation of Cultural Access Programs. If passed, tax money from those measures would directly benefit a city’s art and nonprofit communities. In December 2021, the Olympia city council voted in favor of creating a Cultural Access Program for the city. It was included on the ballot as Proposition 1.

Proponents of the measure say it will benefit art, science and heritage nonprofits here, thereby benefiting Olympia residents, students and families. As a stipulation of the measure, funds from the tax would only be dispersed to community-oriented programing. That would include increased funding for educational programs, museums, musical groups and theater organizations. Organizations could use the funds in a range of ways: to hire additional staff, for example, or to provide additional employee training. Music or theater organizations could extend their performance seasons. Science-based nonprofits could work with local school districts to establish new educational programs.

“There has to be a discernible public benefit for the money to be distributed,” said Cheryl Selby, mayor of Olympia and co-chair for the Inspire Olympia! campaign.

A “Vote Yes Prop #1” sign sits in the ground in front of an illuminated installation by Dave Sederberg at Heritage Park

According to Parfait Bassalé, also a co-chair for Inspire Olympia! and executive diversity officer at South Puget Sound Community College, implementing the measure could make all the difference for Olympia’s art and nonprofit communities. If it passes, increased funding could provide increased art, culture and educational opportunities while benefiting individual artists and underserved communities. “I think this will be one of those opportunities to further [equity focus],” said Bassalé, “by using this measure as a way to ensure that historically excluded communities get their chance to have greater access to arts and education opportunities, and also to be able to fund some of those organizations or individual artists that haven’t been able to tap into that type of resource in order to further their creative contribution to our community.”

Perhaps the strongest support for the measure stems from local artists and nonprofits themselves. Such nonprofit organizations as Arbutus Folk School, the Bridge Music Project and The Washington Center for the Performing Arts recognize the potential impact Proposition 1 would have on their programming.

For Arbutus, the measure would increase access to art, craft and heritage instruction and would allow it to meet community demand for its classes. Arbutus offers courses in such subjects as blacksmithing, ceramics, fiber arts and woodworking. Students there receive hands-on instruction with resources including kilns and pottery wheels. Hillary Tully, executive director of the school, said the organization aims to serve as many community members as possible, but tuition and operating costs limit its scope. Passage of the measure would allow Arbutus Folk School and similar organizations to increases access and capacity so more students can participate in their programming.

“We really see the need to increase our class offerings and increase the wheels in our studio and benches in our shop,” said Tully, “but the funding for those needs just isn’t there, especially in terms of funding toward administrative support to make all those classes happen. If April’s ballot measure were to pass, there would be a major increase in funding available to support community arts organizations like us. And for us in particular, it will directly help us serve more people, offer more classes and open our doors that much wider for our community to get creative and hands-on in the studio.”

The Bridge Music Project harnesses the power of music and songwriting to support students through difficult life circumstances including homelessness or the complexities of the foster care system. Serving over 150 students in the region, Bridge Music Project hosts workshops in which area youth create, perform and record their own songs. Bobby Williams, executive director of the project, said that for smaller nonprofits like his, this measure could provide stability and allow them to serve more young people.

“We see a major demand for the work that we’re doing,” said Williams. “We’re getting constant requests from schools, from community organizations, and the challenge is finding the funding for it so that it’s sustainable and possible. And I think this would allow us to take advantage of more of the opportunities that are being sent our way and to build our capacity.”

Mayor Selby said the measure would have a significant impact on the local nonprofit community and be a tool for the growth of nonprofit programming here, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on results from such previous measures as the Home Fund, Selby estimated this measure could bring in over $2 million per year once fully established. “Sales tax will go from 9.4% to 9.5%. It’s about 10 cents on every $100 that’s spent in Olympia,” said Selby, “but it goes back into the community, right? So it’s kind of like seed money. It’s just going to keep growing and growing and growing.”

If Proposition 1 passes, the increased sales tax rate will begin on July 1 of this year. In the following months, the City of Olympia would establish an official program and advisory committee to allow local artists, nonprofits and other cultural organizations to draw from the funds. Selby said the Cultural Access Program would be set up as a grant program in which organizations go through an application process to ensure appropriate, equitable access to the funds. “There will be very much transparency. There will be accountability,” said Selby. “The advisory committee is almost like an auditing team as well, though. They’re going to make sure that the money goes where it’s supposed to go … We want to make sure that people understand how it’s benefiting the community at large.”

Organizations of all sizes say this measure could have a significant impact on the programming they bring to the community. Endorsements from elected officials include State Representatives Jessica Bateman (LD 22) and Laurie Dolan (LD 22), State Senator Sam Hunt (LD 22) and United States Representative Marilyn Strickland (WA-10). Several members of the Olympia City Council and the Olympia School District Board Directors have likewise endorsed Proposition 1.

“I think people are hungry for something that is positive and will bring joy back into our community after the pandemic,” said Selby, “and people understand, especially in Olympia, that the arts are community building. That is our superpower, is our arts and cultural sector … so people are hungry for that opportunity to celebrate Olympia together.”

Publisher’s note: This article was updated on April 22 with an expanded statement from Mayor Cheryl Selby.
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