On Mar. 28, I testified to the Michigan House Appropriations Subcommittee on History, Arts and Libraries. The Subcommittee requested my testimony after members had been made aware of an essay I wrote entitled "Entertaining Art: To Tax or Not To Tax, That Is the Question," published earlier in March on the Mackinac Center’s website. One of the points I made in that essay was that government involvement in the arts is actually detrimental to art itself, because the process of creating and distributing art inevitably becomes politicized when government takes the lead in financing it. So it was exceedingly gratifying to me when I received an e-mail from a Michigan citizen recounting her experience with a vibrant community art fair and festival that relies primarily on the voluntary efforts of local residents and artists. Organizations like the Harrisville Arts Council are precisely the sort that the Mackinac Center works so hard to protect and preserve. The following letter is a slightly edited version of what Rebecca Welton of Pinconning, Mich., sent to us:
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Dear Mr. LaFaive,
As a member of the Harrisville Arts Council in Harrisville, Mich., I am pleased to see you taking up this fight. Our organization's income is from private resources only. We do not apply for or receive government grants. We saved for years and built a building using private, donated labor.
Our organization's main focus is providing the infrastructure every Labor Day Weekend for almost 500 artists and arts and crafts vendors to display and sell their work. That number is only the vendors invited and accepted by the Art Council and does not include the vendors that set up outside of the fair proper. Our main income is from booth rentals, and we do not have paid staff. I could reasonably argue that we do get government help in the form of tax exemption and we are allowed to secure the use of the Courthouse yard. Proceeds are used to pay our expenses, and we donate to the schools and other groups in the county. Last fall we sponsored the Art Train. It is a well-run organization.
My Aunt is the current president and I believe the only original member. She and a group of senior citizens work from March until after Labor Day to put on the event. Our little town of about 600 residents is flooded with thousands of visitors every year, and there is a lot to do. Water usage has to be curtailed the week leading up to the event. It is truly an amazing sight.
We have said if you don't make money, you don't have what people want. Some artists and craftsmen make out terrific. Carl Sams and Michael Monroe do very well. They also help draw crowds. About 2,000 people apply for admission every year for 500 spots. Of course, there are always fights and accusations that their location is bad, some cheat and buy their art, but all in all it is a success.
In the past year, we have discovered that we are very vulnerable to philosophical hijacking by a relatively small group of people. It has always been easy to join and become a voting member. The dues are only $10.00 and no other requirement is needed. We only have maybe 20 members and not all are active.
The Art Council hired a retired art teacher to teach a couple of watercolor classes during the winter months a few years ago. She was active in the Alpena artist group Art in the Loft. Some of the students (mostly retired women) wanted to keep meeting and did so after the classes ended. They met in the local library, where the teacher was a member of the library board, I believe. Last summer, the librarian found out the teacher was charging for lessons given in the library and booted them.
The dozen or so people promptly joined the Art Council and demanded that space be given to them, that they were "artists" and so we had to accommodate them. They argued that the Council’s building was public property and that they had rights. They said they needed a place to display and sell their artwork, and we were it. They did not care for the Art Council's focus on the Labor Day art fair, and found us "narrow." They held their own meetings and discussed changing our bylaws and applying for grants. They found out that an organization needs money, they weren't interested in working on the art fair, and that they weren't spring chickens that could wait 30 years to have a place to meet and paint.
We fought it out, they had a positive story put in the paper, I wrote a rebuttal, and eventually, I think we are winning. By the way, I am an architectural draftsman with 18 years of experience as well as a wannabe artist. I took one of those classes she gave.
The topic of art is like the topic of children. It is assumed you are mean if you don't support any financial demand. All art is not equal, and those who lack sufficient marketable talent are the most likely to want outside support, in my opinion. If we let a group of "artists" change the philosophy of our organization by obtaining grants so they don't have to work for self-supporting income, we wreck the opportunity for the 500 or so artists that work everyday on their craft with their own resources and time. We also wreck the opportunity for extra income the local businesses plan on that weekend.
Sorry this is so long. I need to write my congressmen also. Please keep up the fight.
Michael D. LaFaive is director of the Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.