Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Written by Walter Pierce

A public commitment to funding arts and culture is an investment in us.

I wish I could communicate in print the word “fantastic” with the slight German accent of Acadiana Center for Arts Executive Director Gerd Wuestemann. It sounds more poetic than prosaic, more artsy, and it fits what the AcA’s new theater expansion will be when it opens in October. Fantastic. And beautiful and technically brilliant and, frankly, pretty damn Euro.

Some in our community won’t get it.

When Wuestemann and City-Parish President Joey Durel announced last week that Lafayette Consolidated Government is poised to make a new, bigger commitment to funding arts and culture in our parish, it was met with a shudder of relief by many. The AcA will double in size when the theater expansion is complete, as will its operating expenses. The arts center is a city-owned and -operated facility, and in the most recent budget it had a paltry $34,000 in LCG funding to devote to its operating expenses. That barely covers two months of utility bills.

But last week the AcA and LCG announced a new model: $515,000 earmarked annually for the arts center. Of that amount, $70,000 would go to Festival International and $160,000 would be disbursed among other arts organizations in the eight-parish Acadiana region in the form of grants. The remaining $285,000 would cover the AcA’s utility bill ($190,000), building insurance ($32K), maintenance/repairs ($31K) and sundries. The LCG funding proposal represents just 16 percent of the center’s projected 2010-2011 budget of $1.5 million; the AcA is overwhelmingly self-sustaining through outside grants and fund-raising like this weekend’s Gulf Brew. I use the conditional — would — because the funding model is a proposal; it must still clear the Lafayette City-Parish Council.

There are some who yap and complain that government shouldn’t be in the business of underwriting arts/culture. I invite them to visit one of the drab, forgettable cities that doesn’t support the arts. I would suggest a destination if I could, but those cities don’t make the “best of” lists like Lafayette routinely does — they don’t pulsate on the national radar — so I don’t know where they are. And I’m thankful the naysayers are in the minority, which also appears to be the case with the city-parish council. Last week following the presentation and tour of the AcA, District 8 Councilman Keith Patin gave his blessing to the proposal and said he would support it during the budget process that begins next month. Patin was one of three councilmen who opposed LCG funding of external agencies last budget go-round.

Patin gets it.

It took some guts for our city-parish president to commit himself to this. The economy is stressed and threatened with a severe downturn by the drilling moratorium. If ever there were a time not to make a fiscal commitment to arts/culture — at least from a superficial, knee-jerk perspective — this is it. But Durel admitted at the presentation and tour last week that when he was first elected he “just didn’t get it,” that is, he didn’t consider the enormous return on the investment arts/culture makes to our community in attracting tourism. Tourists have money, and they’re willing to spend it. In our restaurants, our hotels, our shops. But even beyond that practical consideration, which jibes squarely with Durel’s original campaign pledge to run government like a business — smart businesses make investments that generate revenue — the funding speaks to Lafayette’s quality of life, which is harder to enumerate on a spread sheet but makes us who we are.

Before the 1970s Cajun and Creole culture were in retreat in south Louisiana. Public aid to our music festivals as well as a public commitment to French immersion education helped buttress our indigenous cultures. A robust Acadiana Center for the Arts, which underwrites Louisiana Folk Roots and the Louisiana Crossroads concert series, among scores of other cultural offerings flavored by our homemade roux, is a quantifiable source of sustenance.

As a civic body we devote about $4 million annually for parks and recreation — a valid, valuable contribution to quality of life. Half a million for arts and culture is reasonable, too. And at $2.34 per capita, it’s merely average among progressive U.S. cities.

Get it?

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