Before leaving his post as director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery at the end of the year, Louis Grachos took what will strike many as a surprising parting shot at one of the region’s best-known figures.
The object of his ire was Ralph Wilson, the longtime owner of the Buffalo Bills. As we mulled over the ongoing debate about cultural funding in Erie County in his Albright-Knox office in November, he let out a sigh.
“After all is said and done, we’re back to square one fighting for culture in a political landscape that is completely willing to give Mr. Wilson, Ralph Wilson, $200 million to supposedly secure our future in football in Buffalo. Well, it’s a bunch of crap,” said Grachos. “Mark [Poloncarz,] who is totally supportive of cultural institutions, is now faced with having to deal with that battle all over again year after year.”
It’s about time someone of Grachos’ stature made this argument.
The Bills subsidy issue, as Poloncarz’s communications director Mark Cornell recently explained, is complex. According to The News’ Denise Jewell Gee, the Bills currently receive about $7 million a year in county-funded subsidies and this number is expected to increase in future years after the current lease negotiations are complete. In comparison, Poloncarz’s budget proposal included about $5 million to be distributed among more than 50 cultural groups. (This is to say nothing of the Bills’ request for more than $200 million for major stadium improvements, the bulk of which may have to come from New York State.)
Arguments about the value and effectiveness of subsidies for cultural groups versus sports teams have tended to be inflammatory on both ends of the spectrum. To the dimmest arts advocates, the sports world seems like the realm of ignorant meatheads. To the dimmest sports fans, the cultural world is at best cute and ineffectual. Neither is remotely true, but these people tend to drown out reasonable debate.
Arts advocates, of late, have been honing their arguments to a razor-sharp point. Their greatest weapon remains a 2006 UB Regional Institute study of 22 arts organizations that showed a return of nearly $10 for every dollar invested in addition to substantial sales tax generation and a (somewhat more dubious) secondary annual economic impact of $264 million. But a growing chorus of economists, led by the University of Chicago’s Allen Sanderson, suggest that stadium subsidies do far less than promised to stimulate local economies and provide tax revenue. An article by my colleague Tim Graham in February suggested that a Bills departure would have almost no effect on the local economy.
At the very least, politicians need to look much more seriously at exaggerated claims of economic impact, wherever they come from. We need a more honest discussion of what taxpayers actually receive in return for their investment in the Bills – and in the arts – beyond psychological reassurance.
From my perspective, the Bills are so deeply ingrained in the DNA of Western New York, their triumphs and failures so inextricably bound up with those of the region, that they deserve some amount of public backing.
But there is little doubt that the amount Wilson and his team have managed to draw from local and state taxpayers is excessive when compared with the largely intangible (that is to say, emotional) return on investment the Bills offer. The data, though it needs fleshing out, suggests that widely distributed, small-scale cultural investments provide more significant returns.
At the very least, Grachos’ comments should give us pause. It’s long past time to begin an honest debate.