A flap over the Slocum House Theater Company’s use of a city-owned building draws into sharp relief the financial issues facing the City of Vancouver, while raising questions about the role of the arts in a community and the role of the public in supporting those arts. But it also calls into question the city council’s recent indefensible actions.
For the past 46 years, the theater company has operated out of the historic Slocum House in the southwest corner of Esther Short Park, providing community productions in a 50-seat theater.
This is a worthwhile cultural endeavor, but it should not be a free one. The arts, it has been said, are the soul of a civilization, yet it would be naive to expect that such a public benefit should come without a cost or that it should be subsidized without regard to financial realities.
That has led to the current situation. While the theater company pays about $635 a month for the use of the building, the city expends about $2,500 a month for the facility, providing maintenance, utilities, operating supplies, and capital repairs to the historic structure.
Now the city, as part of its widespread cost-cutting, has informed the theater company of plans to increase those fees to $2,500 a month beginning in January. The city also rents out one small office in the building to the Farmers Market, generating about $250 a month.
The city government’s stance on this is understandable. Last year, it reduced staff by 20 percent and announced a 10 percent cut in the Parks and Recreation department that likely will lead to layoffs, according to city councilor Jack Burkman. As with most public — as well as private — entities, the City of Vancouver has been forced to deal with a new financial paradigm and has been required to make difficult decisions that impact the livelihoods of employees and citizens. Any option for reducing expenses and increasing revenues is worthy of consideration.
Yet the city has poked holes in its arguments through its recent actions.
Unfortunately, when city council members voted to give city manager Eric Holmes a 3.5 percent pay raise, they lost the moral high ground in the “cutting back” argument. Lots of folks with their hand out will simply say, “He got his, now give me mine.”
Given that reality, the city comes across as two-faced, saying one thing to worthwhile organizations that seek money while doing quite another when it comes to taking care of their own.
Still, despite the city’s public-relations nightmare of its own making, the council should be pulling in the amount of money it spends on non-necessity programs. The location and the historic nature of the Slocum House make it a valuable asset for Vancouver, and officials are acting fairly and reasonably in working to ensure that they are making full use of that asset.
We love art as much as the next guy, but support of the arts is more justifiable during flush times, not during times when massive layoffs have rocked the country and many taxpayers continue to struggle.
In this situation, the city should take it slow. Leaders of the Slocum House Theater Company say they are discussing fundraising and possible sponsorships, and given its long history in the area it should be afforded time to exhaust those options.
Certainly some community members will object to classifying art as a nonnecessity. It is our hope that those who feel it is a necessity will step up and help out.