A proposed 7 percent entertainment tax would be applied to everything from blockbuster arena shows to small club concerts, as well as movie theater tickets, Columbus Blue Jackets games and more

Prior to a late-August public forum hosted by the Greater Columbus Arts Council (GCAC) at the Vanderelli Room, artist and musician Ben Lamb removed a profane piece he had on display at the Franklinton gallery as part of the “F-Art” show, replacing it with a work that doubled as a timely bit of social commentary.

The piece, painted on plywood, recreated the “Change My Mind” meme — a photograph of conservative podcaster Steven Crowder seated behind a sign that reads, “Male privilege is a myth/change my mind,” which has taken on creative new life in the hands of the online community — replacing Crowder with a depiction of Lamb seated by a sign that reads, “Independent arts events should not subsidize fiscal shortfalls of corporate venues/change my mind.” On the table beside Lamb sits a thermos emblazoned with the Nationwide Insurance logo.

In mid-August, GCAC released plans for a wide-ranging ticket tax, which, as initially proposed, would levy a 7 percent fee on tickets or admission to virtually every sports or cultural event in the city. This would include everything from blockbuster arena shows to small club concerts, as well as movie theater tickets, Columbus Blue Jackets games and admission to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, among countless other events and performances. High school and collegiate sporting events would be exempt from the tax by Ohio law.

The arts council estimated the tax, along with county funds, would generate roughly $14 million a year, and its proposal calls for 30 percent of the total, around $4 million, to go to capital improvement projects at Nationwide Arena, with the remainder going to GCAC to distribute to arts groups.

Reaction to the proposal — particularly the arena aspect of the plan (Nationwide funding has a long, complicated history within the city) — was loud and immediate, with discussions taking place on social media and in various online forums before spilling over into a crowded Vanderelli Room on Wednesday, Aug. 22, during the first of three planned public forums. (On Wednesday, Sept. 12, the Columbus Metropolitan Club will also host a discussion panel, “To Ticket Tax or Not,” centered on the issue.)

The meeting attracted a wide cross section of Columbus' arts and events community. Jordan Mitchell of heavy-shredding rock band Beggars was seated in the front row, just a few seats over from Denise Rehg, the executive director of the Columbus Symphony. A few rows back, magician and comedian Erik Tait effortlessly shuffled a deck of cards in his left hand, while musician and promoter Ty Owen gave his discussion notes a final once-over. In the rear, Matt Lorz of the Arnold Sports Festival — Arnold co-founder Jim Lorimer is an outspoken opponent of the plan — mingled nearby gallery owner AJ Vanderelli.

And while Ben Lamb couldn't attend the session in-person, his presence was still felt via his painting, which was positioned right beside the raised stage on which arts council members Tom Katzenmeyer, president and CEO, and Jami Goldstein, vice president of marketing, communications and events, would deliver their public appeal. The work spoke to the uncertainty the plan inspired among at least some in attendance: “Change my mind.”

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A week before the Vanderelli Room meeting, Goldstein, seated in a Downtown coffee shop, stressed the need for increased public arts funding in Columbus, which, according to GCAC, falls short of peer cities. A 2016 analysis by DataArts, a national nonprofit dedicated to providing research and data on the cultural sector, estimated that per capita funding to Columbus arts and cultural organizations constituted roughly half of what similar organizations receive in Cleveland, and less than a third of those in Pittsburgh.

“We have more than 20 studies and 12 years of concerted research that consistently points to the fact that we're way underfunded from public funds, and that our endowments aren't big enough to offset that in any way,” Goldstein said. (Older, formerly industrial cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh have more historic wealth and thus larger, more established endowments than relatively young cities like Columbus.) “We give operating support to 25 organizations, and about 20 of those are fairly significant budgets. … We need to make them sustainable not just for now, but for the future, and that's what this plan is intended to do.”

As an example, Goldstein points to the Columbus Museum of Art, which received just 7 percent of its $10.6 million operating budget from public funding. The national average for museums is 20 percent, according to data from the Association of Art Museum Directors provided by GCAC.

Currently, the city's major source of public funding for the arts is a portion of the “bed tax” (charged to people who stay in city hotels), which is directed to GCAC. In 2017, the council received $6.77 million from the bed tax, which allowed GCAC to distribute millions in funding grants to various arts organizations, as well as individual artists. This included groups both large (BalletMet received $275,000) and small. Local alt-rock group the Cordial Sins, for one, received $2,000 in grant money in 2017, including a $1,500 travel grant (available to any band or musician with a paid out-of-town concert and applicable to travel and lodging) and a $500 supply grant, which allowed the band to purchase new equipment, according to singer Liz Fisher. This year the band applied for and received a $500 resource grant (formerly the supply grant), which can be used to purchase any physical supplies involved in making music or art.

“We're out of artist grant money for the year,” Goldstein said. “We're getting more and more small, artist-led projects coming into us all the time and we don't have enough money to fund them.”

As part of the research process, GCAC explored numerous avenues for increasing revenue, including various sin taxes (Cleveland adopted a 30-cent-per-pack tobacco tax to fund the arts in Cuyahoga County), an increase in the bed tax (Columbus already ranks among the nation's highest), a car-rental tax and an increase in property taxes, alongside other considerations. Each option either fell short of generating the needed funds or lacked “the political will” to make it a reality, as Goldstein explained.

“Sin taxes are popular with people because if you don't smoke, yeah, tax cigarettes,” she said. “But these all require an act by the state legislature, and the current makeup of the Ohio legislature doesn't make this a realistic thing. … We approached elected officials to gauge their temperature on a number of these and were told pretty much zero.”

Ticket fees are becoming increasingly common both in-state and nationwide. In Ohio, Cleveland levies an 8 percent admissions tax, while Cincinnati's falls at 3 percent, though city officials have recently discussed an increase.

Although the fact the ticket tax can be passed without a public vote is a thorn in the side of critics, it's a potential benefit to GCAC, since other revenue-generating options would require approval from voters. In this approach, GCAC is working direct with City Council and the city attorney's office to draft the legislation (according to a spokesperson in the city attorney's office, it would not shape the legislation but rather work with interested parties to assure the final version is compliant with city code). The bill would then go to City Council in mid-September, when public meetings would likely be held before City Council members vote on the bill, which, if passed, would take effect at the start of 2019.

The close ties between City Council and GCAC — councilmembers Michael Stinziano and Priscilla Tyson serve on the arts council's Board of Trustees; councilmember Elizabeth Brown, Katzenmeyer's daughter-in-law, would have to abstain from any vote — left many interviewed with little doubt the legislation would pass once it reaches that point.

“To me it's not a question of if. It's a question of when,” said Scott Woods, poet and founder of Streelight Guild, a nascent arts group. “By the time we receive these proposals, in my mind it's 90 percent on its way to being done. That's just how this city works. The minute you tell me this only has to go to City Council for approval, then that's a done deal to me.”

PromoWest Productions founder Scott Stienecker said he wasn't caught off guard when he first learned of the proposed admissions tax in early July.

“We're in three markets — Columbus, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh — and I pay an amusement tax in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. So my initial reaction was more that I wondered when they were going to do it in Columbus,” said Stienecker, who, in addition to running local venues such as Express Live and the Newport Music Hall, operates Bunbury Music Festival in Cincinnati and owns and operates the Stage AE venue in Pittsburgh.

Stienecker said the tax, if passed, would eliminate a competitive advantage Columbus has enjoyed against regional competitors like Cleveland and Cincinnati, which could harm the quality of shows the city can draw. He also thinks the proposed 7 percent tax is too high, and that the 5 percent levied by Pittsburgh is a better comparison. At the same time, Stienecker thinks people would quickly adapt to the new reality.

“Is it going to stop someone from going to a show? Eh, probably not. But every time you buy a ticket you're going to think to yourself, ‘OK, I'm buying two. I'm buying four. How much is it?'” he said. “Will it affect us? Yeah, I think it will affect us some. Will we feel an impact in 2019? Yeah, we'll probably feel some impact. But will people get used to it through 2019? Yeah, they probably will.”

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At the Vanderelli Room, much of the early discussion centered on the effect the tax could have on small arts organizations and independent music venues, where $5 and $10 door charges are common and most businesses operate on narrow margins.

“My big thing is that it's peanuts to an elephant, man,” said musician and promoter Ty Owen, who has received grant money from GCAC and was featured in the council's “Art Makes Columbus” campaign, seated in a Franklinton coffee shop the day after the forum. “I personally feel GCAC does good work. … The thing that bothers me about [the proposal], and I hope this is just an oversight by GCAC, but does it really make sense to take money from a $5 or $8 local show to fund, in their words, primarily the ‘anchor' cultural institutions in town and Nationwide Arena? I don't think it does. They're going to spend more time and effort calculating and collecting money than they're going to get out of it.”

Studio 35 Cinema & Drafthouse owner Eric Brembeck said in a phone interview that the ticket tax, as proposed, would have cost the Clintonville movie theater $18,000 in 2017, a cost that could increase in the future as the business considers expanding with the addition of a second screen. He said he would likely be forced to increase ticket prices to cover the tax, or to explore loopholes such as selling a small popcorn for $11.50 and including a free ticket.

“They have to understand that we're not getting rich here. We're getting by. And we're the ones trying to create the vibrant arts scene,” said Bobby Miller, founder and event producer for Archie Fox Creative Group, which books a majority of the shows at Old North music venue Ace of Cups. “In a real-world way, my take from every ticket being sold, on my best day, is 15 percent. There are many times where we're operating at a loss, or we're coming in below 15 percent, but contractually 15 is our cap. So essentially what they're saying is they want to take 7 percent of that, which is almost 47 percent of my revenue.

“They say, ‘Well, you can pass that on to the consumer.' The thing is, at this level, all of our tickets are already priced at what the market can bear. We can't add any more fees or raise the tickets or we're going to sell fewer tickets.”

At the Vanderelli Room forum, Owen led off the public portion of the event, proposing that venues with a capacity of less than 1,000 be exempted from the tax. Later in the evening, Sherri Geldin, outgoing director of the Wexner Center for the Arts, whose performance spaces would be included under the 1,000-capacity proposal, countered that perhaps ticket price or organizational operating budget might be a better measure for exemption.

“Sure, the Wex is playing with real money, so maybe there's a better way to approach it, some weird mesh of all that,” Owen said; for instance, an exemption could be made for venues under a 1,000-seat capacity that also have an operating budget of less than a to-be-determined amount. “But the 1,000-capacity draw, for me, was looking at spaces and venues inside Columbus that actually support local artists.”

In a follow-up phone call in early September, Goldstein said the arts council plans on addressing two areas of concern raised during the public meetings in its final proposal to City Council. The first section would better define a ticket or admission (race registrations and fees on classes and workshops would be exempted from the tax, for instance). The second section would address exemptions based on venue size or ticket price, though precise numbers were still under discussion. According to Goldstein, the full text of the proposed legislation will be available to the public after City Council reconvenes on Monday, Sept. 17.

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On the opposite end of the financial spectrum, Arnold co-founder Jim Lorimer has headed a group of 30 promoters and events producers joined in opposition to the bill. The group includes, among others, the All American Quarter Horse Congress and the Ohio State Fair, and Lorimer said the groups collectively provide almost $1 billion in economic impact to the city.

“I've been here many years. I love this community. I want to stay here. I just want it to be an environment in which we are able to do a major presentation without being penalized to help another entertainment segment,” said Lorimer, noting his event, the Arnold, is already responsible for a hefty contribution to the bed tax that currently funds the arts council, contracting with 75 hotels and running in excess of 160,000 bed nights. “What do all 30 members on this coalition get? They get nothing. And they all pay.”

Other points raised at the Vanderelli Room meeting included the inherent unfairness of flat taxes, which place a disproportionate burden on lower-income households; questions of how the collected funds would be distributed and how much would go to so-called “anchor” institutions versus small arts groups and individual artists; and, of course, the planned 30 percent of the collected funds being directed to Nationwide Arena.

“My first impression was that this was an attempt to backdoor some public funds to Nationwide Arena under the guise of creating a more vibrant arts scene,” Miller said. “The arena has been an albatross to the city for a while, and the people have voted down public funds going to Nationwide multiple times. … It feels a bit like a reverse Robin Hood, where they're taking from the have-nots to prop up the haves.”

Streetlight Guild's Scott Woods watched the live stream of the Vanderelli Room forum and attended the second, held at the Parsons Avenue branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, which he described as “more contentious.”

“The first panel was very arts-based, which is great, and there was very little mention of Nationwide at all,” he said. “The second meeting was the complete opposite. Nationwide was the predominant topic.”

Woods agrees with GCAC that the arts are underfunded in Columbus, though he questions the decision to attach the arena to the proposal.

“No one should be arguing against arts funding. It's important. It's necessary. It sells the city, which the city loves to do. And they're not lying when they tell you Columbus is way behind in terms of arts support. … In short, the city is growing but the arts are not,” Woods said. “But attaching Nationwide is a breach of public trust. We've voted against funding this thing multiple times. And this really is a loophole, a backdoor to doing that.”

Woods said he has considered the proposal from a number of perspectives, as an artist and a black artist, as someone who has received grant money from GCAC, and as someone who owns a small, up-and-coming arts nonprofit.

“As an organization that's really small but has high impact culturally, I'm really concerned. I don't want the extra paperwork. I don't want to spend time determining new taxes on tickets,” he said. “And I say all of this as probably the black artist who received the most money from GCAC last year. It's in my interest they receive more money, because they like to fund the things that I do. But I don't want them to do it this way.”

Goldstein understands the public distaste for funding the arena — “We went into this knowing full well that aspect could make it challenging for us as the arts council,” she said — but also described it as a key part of the city's arts and culture ecosystem.

“We have an arena. It's important to the Arena District as a neighborhood. It's important to our city to be able to keep a major league sports team and to attract the kinds of concerts people want to see. We have to address how to help them,” she said. “People say, ‘Let them fail!' I don't believe that's an option Columbus will accept, to allow the arena to fall so far into disrepair that it then becomes a blight on the neighborhood. That's not how we work here.”

In conversation, and in the panel at the Vanderelli Room, Goldstein stressed that this is the beginning of the process of drafting the ticket tax proposal and that community input would factor heavily into the final version presented to City Council later this month. (She described the broad initial pitch as a “straw man” designed to inspire debate.)

“[GCAC] could easily not care. They could have sent this to City Council and said, ‘Here's the deal. Eat it, Columbus.' But they haven't,” said Ty Owen. “The reason I've been so vocal about it is that it's not often that people have an actual opportunity to have their voices heard in local issues that affect them. … As an artist and musician in Columbus, and as someone who has worked with GCAC, I hope at the end of this to be able to say, ‘You listened to the community … and I support this.' But if they don't listen to the community… .”

Goldstein understands the tightrope the arts council is walking, describing this process as “the hardest challenge I've ever tackled, personally.”

As a reminder of this, Goldstein recently purchased Ben Lamb's “Change My Mind” painting — the very one that hung in judgment as she spoke onstage at the Vanderelli Room.

“The first time I saw this piece I just had to laugh,” said Goldstein, who purchased the painting with her own money and hung it outside her office at GCAC. “To me it is the perfect example of the creativity, humor and willingness to listen of our artists.”

And Goldstein paid full asking price for the work: retail plus 7 percent.