The Smithsonian is funded almost entirely with taxpayer dollars, although it also enjoys occasional high-profile donations from philanthropists. But can you imagine a president or congressman ever saying about the Smithsonian that “There are better ways to make this city relevant?” Can you imagine them ever suggesting that few would consider the Smithsonian museums to have been wise investments? Can you imagine them suggesting that the tax dollars now going to them might be better spent on developing a trolley line or pedicabs?
We can’t either. But that scenario, writ small, was essentially proposed for Marietta’s museums and arts institutions last week by a newly elected Marietta councilman.
Noting that the city of Marietta has spent roughly $2 million underwriting the operations of The Marietta Museum of History, Councilman Stuart Fleming told an MDJ reporter that, “I think, in hindsight, few people would consider that the wisest investment.”
Fleming has not gone so far as to propose funding cuts to any of the museums or arts groups supported by the city, but might have tipped his hand with the words, “I think most taxpayers would say, ‘We don’t want to spend $2 million on the Museum of History. There are better ways to try to make our community relevant.’”
He went on to suggest that other types of businesses — citing pedicabs or trolleys — might draw new visitors to the city.
Well, for starters, Marietta already has a trolley company — and it’s an outstanding one. And it already has pedicabs.
It also is fortunate to have not just one, or two, or even three, but six museums — a remarkable number for a city our size, and each with its own distinct mission. In addition to the Museum of History, downtown is also home to Marietta/Cobb Museum of Art, the Root House Museum, the Gone With the Wind Museum and the Old Zion Baptist Church Heritage Museum. All enjoy funding from the City’s hotel-motel tax, which by law must be used to promote tourism. That tax also is used to help underwrite the Earl Smith Strand Theatre, the Friends of Brown Park, the Georgia Ballet and the Cobb Landmarks & Historical Society. (Downtown also is home to the Marietta Fire Museum, an oft-overlooked gem housed in the main city firehouse. It is funded via the Fire Department budget, rather than by grant like the others.)
Even with help from the city, which passes along the tax proceeds from the out-of-towners who pay the hotel-motel tax, all those entities listed above typically live a hand-to-mouth existence, operating on shoestring budgets while producing high-quality offerings that punch way above their weight when it comes to enriching the fabric of this community.
And grants from the city do not guarantee their financial health. Far from it. Just ask supporters of the much-lamented Theatre on the Square, which went out of business two years ago after a stellar 30-year run.
Those museums and arts groups in some cases have already suffered deep funding cuts from the city, and incredibly, the Museum of History found itself having to rebuff efforts by some then-city council members (not Fleming) to sell off part of its collection to help its bottom line — even though acquiescing with the council probably would have signaled its death knell. And most of the current council members contacted by the MDJ for its story last week, and presented with a golden opportunity to go to bat for the city’s arts and cultural institutions, came across as disappointingly gun-shy instead.
However, Fleming’s comments last week might have backfired, as they seem to have served as a “wake-up” call to those who support the museums and arts groups.
There clearly can be improvements and better coordination in the way those groups are funded. But expecting them to survive strictly on admissions and donations would not be just a mistake but a sure-fire guarantee that many of them would soon be out of business. Marietta deserves better.