Government subsidies, American-style

I know we don’t have much in the way of government subsidies for the arts in this country, but this is ridiculous:

Officials with art and cultural groups in Philadelphia say they are angered by the state’s decision to expand state sales taxes to their businesses.

Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance director Peggy Amsterdam said Pennsylvania officials’ decision to apply the state sales tax to cultural performances and venues may prove detrimental to artistic and cultural sites statewide, the Philadelphia Inquirer said Sunday.

“Not only will it hit the arts organizations, but it will make it harder for people to pay,” Amsterdam said of the new tax burden for such venues.

“It would affect not only the orchestra but every single organization in this town,” said Hal Sorgenti, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s immediate past board chairman.

The expansion of the state sales tax to performing-arts and other cultural venues is intended to help the state raise nearly $100 million, the Inquirer said.

Gary Tuma, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell’s spokesman, would not offer specifics regarding the state’s budget plan confirmed Friday.

Tuma told the Inquirer “we cannot do a budget without pain,” adding, “and there is widespread pain in this budget.”

I once calculated that my orchestra returns more money to the government in sales tax (not to mention various employment and withholding taxes, of course) than it receives in direct subsidies. That’s because we’re considered “entertainment” by the State of Wisconsin, unlike the local African dance company, another 503(c) organization performance organization (and one that’s unique to Milwaukee, I believe) and many other arts groups, which apparently are considered something else.

This move is getting a lot of pushback, which is good. I’ve never thought government subsidies were a sustainable answer to funding the arts in America, but is it too much to ask that the arts don’t subsidize the government? We don’t ask that of universities, or upscale private schools, or churches, or social agencies. Why should the arts be singled out like this?

The arts don’t need lectures from state governments about “sharing the pain.”

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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