Wednesday, nonprofit group the Arts Alliance released the results of a survey sent out to electoral candidates about their involvement in and stance on support for various aspects of the arts in Washtenaw County.

The Alliance also held a forum Wednesday morning with several of the candidates to discuss the results.

Debra Polich, executive director of the Arts Alliance, said the group conducted the survey and forum to increase focus on the arts both for the community at large and for elected officials by demonstrating the impact of the creative sector on the county.

“The importance there is again,” Polich said, “(the creative sector) is a voting block, and people want their elected officials to pay attention to these issues and the policies that can impact the sector and keep it vibrant.”

She said while there’s plenty of local engagement with the arts and high levels of individual support in the area, where Washtenaw County faces a challenge in comparison to the rest of Michigan is institutional support, making the role of elected officials important.

“We don’t have public investment,” she said. “And I mean that public investment by dollars, but I also mean public policy investment, making policy decisions that really foster a climate, an environment, that makes the creative sector a priority, and so that’s part of the change and that’s part of the work that we need to be doing, as advocates for arts and culture for the creative sector.”

Of the candidates sent surveys, 23 returned them, including the four Democratic candidates running for Ann Arbor mayor, incumbent Ann Arbor City Council candidate Sumi Kailasapathy (D–Ward 1), Ward 2 City Council candidates Nancy Kaplan and Kirk Westphal and Debbie Dingell, who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives in Michigan’s 12th District, which includes Ann Arbor.

When it came to the mayoral candidates, all four expressed similar positions on the broader issue of arts availability and engagement in Washtenaw County, saying they supported it. Councilmembers Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1), Sally Hart Petersen (D–Ward 2) and Christopher Taylor (D–Ward 3) all also identified themselves as having donated or contributed personally to an arts, cultural, or heritage organization.

Though all four said they broadly supported public investment in the arts, options diverged slightly on how specifically the arts should be supported. Briere said she supported governmental funding, with an emphasis on small grants to the arts. Councilmember Stephen Kunselman (D–Ward 3) and Taylor both identified line funding appropriations or tax-based options as examples of potential funding pathways. Petersen said she supported crowdfunding based initiatives, as well as use of public space.

Kailasapathy, Kaplan and Westphal similarly identified support for the arts. Kailasapathy said she preferred a mix of private and public funding, while Kaplan said she supported reaching out to private donors and Westphal advocated the creation and maintenance of an economy that allows artists to earn a living and attracts more to the area. All three said arts availability and engagement were important and also identified themselves as having personally donated to support to an arts, cultural or heritage organization.

Dingell also said she supported arts availability and engagement in the county, as well as identifying herself both as a personal donor to an arts, cultural or heritage organization and an artist. She identified public-private partnerships as a primary way to support creativity in the county.

Polich said the trend in the survey has generally been towards support, though the manifestation of it is sometimes less concrete.

“What I hear a lot of is yes; yes this sounds like a good idea, but, you know, really we don’t have the resources to make it happen,” she said. “The fact is if something is important, you can find resources. You can find ways to make it happen. It’s a belief system and an investment. It’s both saying it’s important, and making it important.”

She added that when it comes to other public institutions in the county such as universities, the advocacy focus is primarily on maintaining already strong arts and culture programs, as well as improving town-gown relationships.

“Historically, if you look at the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University and Washtenaw Community Colleges, all of them have really good arts and cultural programs, and they should be applauded for that,” she said. “The University of Michigan has over its existence in many cases and in many times been the provider of cultural opportunities in our communities, so they’ve definitely led the way.”

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