WILMINGTON — The Arts Council of Wilmington thinks seven years is long enough.
As the City of Wilmington works through its budget for the next fiscal year, the arts council is urging council to reconsider its annual allocation. City staff has recommended giving $25,000, the same amount given since 2015, to the nonprofit.
Rhonda Bellamy, president, CEO and founder of the Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County, told Port City Daily a larger investment will pay out in the future.
“We don’t feel entitled necessarily to funding,” Bellamy said. “We’re just asking that with a little increased funding, we can build capacity within our own organization and not really have to rely on city funding.”
Bellamy is asking the city for $125,000 to hire a fundraising organizer. Right now, Bellamy and one other staff member are the only two focused on fundraising efforts, yet also have other job responsibilities to contend with like programming. Bellamy describes the request as a “transformational investment in the arts.”
About a third of the council’s operating budget ($166,000) comes from fundraising. In the 2021-2022 fiscal year, the arts council reported an income of $504,000. The city’s $25,000 makes up around 5% of income. The arts council also received $45,000 from New Hanover County and $55,000 from the North Carolina Arts Council — $50,000 of which they sub-grant out.
The remaining $200,000 was a one-time payment in American Rescue Plan funds from the city. Last year, the city awarded the arts council the money to allocate money to community arts organizations. The arts council received only $10,000 for administrative costs.
The $100,000 increase from the city that Bellamy is requesting in the next fiscal year would make the arts council allocation the largest since its founding in 2012. The arts council budget is evaluated on a three-year cycle — last done in 2019 — so whatever amount city council decides to give would stick until 2024.
Bellamy believes the arts council should be treated like other economic development agencies, citing Wilmington Downtown Inc. as an example. WDI is projected to receive $100,000, almost quadruple the arts council funding. Wilmington Business Development is slated to get $107,000 and the Wilmington Film Commission, $130,000.
“There are many who consider [the arts] a voluntary patronage, but we’re bringing in other types of business,” Bellamy said.
According to the “New Hanover County Arts & Economic Prosperity Report 5,” nonprofit arts spending totaled $14.8 million in the county in fiscal year 2015. That spending supports other industries like tourism, construction, legal and technology.
The arts contribute $55.8 million to the local economy and help support over 2,000 jobs. It generates $5.6 million in federal and state tax revenues, the report states.
“This is big business,” Bellamy said.
She made her case to council members at the city’s budget presentation May 18.
“We were dismayed to find that we were only going to receive $25,000 in agency funding to do the work that we do for the city,” she said during the public comment period.
The arts council garnered some support during the city council’s budget work session on May 27.
“With all the work that they do I would hope that they would be getting more,” councilmember Clifford Barnett advocated. “What we’re finding now more and more is that people need places where they can mentally release. Art is a great way to do that. And so I’m just trying to see if we can find some more money for them.
Mayor Pro-Tem Margaret Haynes said she was “disappointed” in the remarks made about the lack of funding.
“I just was disappointed that there was no mention of the $200,000 that they had previously received,” Haynes said. “That is a tremendous amount of money.”
Bellamy thanked the council at the May 18 budget presentation for trusting the arts council with distributing the money.
“The thing about the $200,000 is that, as the administrator of those funds, we were not allowed to apply,” Bellamy told Port City Daily.
The arts council paid out 15 other arts agencies throughout the community. The biggest receivers were DREAMS of Wilmington ($25,000), Wilmington Ballet ($20,000) and Opera Wilmington ($18,000).
“We were happy to do that. I didn’t want the perception of a conflict of interest, so I was fine with that,” Bellamy said. “But we were not entitled to receive any of the $200,000.”
Haynes, who also serves on the North Carolina Arts Council, said she would support the city’s $25,000 recommendation.
“I’m pretty familiar with the advantages of economic development laws and the quality of life that is provided by the arts, but I think they have fundraisers and they do a number of things,” Haynes said.
Bellamy said the arts council did lose some of its fundraising opportunities during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“A dedicated director of development would allow us to optimize funding for not just the arts council, but also to pursue additional funding for the sector,” Bellamy said.
Chad Cramer, principal urban designer for the City of Wilmington, compared Wilmington’s art council funding with others in the state in an email obtained by Port City Daily.
Data from the arts council found that out of 70 arts councils, Wilmington has the 50th largest funding. If the funding was based on size, he said Wilmington should rank 8th.
Cramer described the evidence to be “quite compelling.”
“The Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County values our relationship with the city,” Bellamy said. “We have a strong record of economic development through the arts and that’s evident through our partnership with the city on several counts.”
Previous public-private initiatives include Fourth Friday Gallery Nights, which showcases artists and provides marketing opportunities to 20 downtown businesses. The pedestrian art public sculpture program puts out 10 to 12 sculptures a year that attract visitors to downtown.
The city is also partnering with the arts council on the Wilmington Rail Trail, a project that will transform abandoned rail lines into a 5.9-mile bike and pedestrian greenway. The council is spearheading the organization of the trail, which will incorporate public art along the route. The city-approved funds for Phase I of the project were approved in March.
“[The funding] will allow us to do what we do best, which is to support artists and arts organizations through innovative public private partnerships that develop jobs, stimulate commerce and showcase the region as an arts destination,” Bellamy said.
City council will vote on the fiscal year 2022-2023 budget at its meeting on June 7.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at email@example.com.