Hilton Head has not gauged public's interest in the arts

info@islandpacket.comDecember 22, 2013 

The Town of Hilton Head Island is no closer to determining whether its residents are interested in supporting the arts by opening their wallets. This, in spite of the town hiring a consulting firm and paying nearly $80,000 to gauge the public's interest in the arts.

At issue is a flawed survey, conducted by the consulting firm, Cultural Planning Group. The consultants' mission is to help Town Council determine ways to get the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina and the island's other arts groups on solid financial footing and determine the town's role in making it happen.

For example, should taxpayers pay more to support the arts? Should the town take ownership of the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, which is financially struggling? Should the town do more to support roughly 40 other arts groups that also say they're having a hard time raising money?

So far, the consultants have produced a biased survey that should not be used by the town to make any decision. Survey respondents were self-selected, not randomly selected, introducing bias in the survey. Several arts groups, including the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, sent a link of the survey to their patrons, asking them to fill it out and show their support. The result: people already engaged in the arts likely represent a disproportionately large percentage of those surveyed.

Mayor Drew Laughlin and other council members were right to raise questions about the survey's validity at a recent Town Council meeting. That's because people who feel strongly about an issue tend to participate in such surveys, while those who are lukewarm do not. It's a concept drilled into many of us during research method classes in college.

It's no surprise that the survey found that more than 70 percent of the 2,170 respondents thought the town should play a major part in supporting arts, culture and entertainment efforts and were willing to pay as much as $25 per capita in annual taxes for such offerings. And nearly three-fourths of respondents want more, affordable options for live music, dance and theater.

It would be unfair -- and inaccurate -- to make decisions about town funding for the arts on this survey. The town has not heard from a true sampling of its taxpayers.

The arts consultants pointed out to Town Council that all surveys contain bias. If that's the case, then no survey should have been conducted instead of one that states the obvious.

It's unfortunate to see the survey as the basis for an arts funding plan that puts both the art-loving and art-apathetic taxpayer on the hook.

(The consulting firm also held the a series of community conversations on the needs, vision and aspirations of the cultural life of Hilton Head, which also are being considered in its recommendations.)

The firm recently encouraged the town to come up with more ways to support the arts, likely property taxes.

It also believes the town should begin planning now for a new 700- to 1,000-seat performing arts venue. In the meantime, it believes town leaders should also develop a short-term plan to maintain the Arts Center.

In other words, the town should give more to prop up the arts center, which has been operating in the red for years and is in dire need of building improvements and repairs. And it should also build a second arts venue -- even though the performing arts center is in financial trouble.

We believe the arts are an important part of island life and are pleased that about 40 arts groups call it home. But arts groups, like residents and like government, must live within their means.

Arts patrons, not taxpayers, must provide the majority of the financial support to their chosen arts groups by attending performances, volunteering and making donations.

That's not to say the town should play no part in supporting the arts. As it should, the town doles out tax proceeds, generated by overnight lodging stays, to arts groups and others that bring in tourists, every year. This represents a commitment to the arts that is overlooked in the cries for more public money.

Earlier this month, Town Council approved nearly $2.7 million in town tax collections for events to attract tourists in 2014.

Among the biggest awards, $200,000 to the Hilton Head Island Symphony Orchestra and $365,000 to the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina to support its operations. And council is still mulling the center's request for an additionally $86,000 to replace its heating and cooling system.

We caution Town Council to proceed cautiously with its arts plan, remembering its decisions will affect all residents, not just the art aficionados.

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