Mandi answers questions about the arts in Amherst

The Amherst Center Cultural District Board posed a number of questions to the Town Council candidates. Below are Mandi’s responses.

What cultural events have you attended recently?

Among other events, I have attended cultural events such as the India & Pakistan Flag 75th Celebration, the reading (as a reader) of Frederick Douglass’s What to the Slave is the Fourth of July, and the Juneteenth celebrations and Civil War Tablet viewing. I have attended music performances ranging from solo performances to large ensemble performances, and at locations such as the Town Common, an orchard, a vineyard, and a museum.

What arts organizations do you support or are you a part of?

I am a viola player in the Pioneer Valley Symphony. I am a subscriber at the Fine Arts Center. I financially support a number of local arts organizations, as well as my childhood youth orchestra.

As of today, the Town of Amherst only directly funds the arts in one way, through its Percent for Art Bylaw. Most of the funding for arts and culture projects comes from state grants or private organizations. What role could the Town Council have in recommending financial support for the arts in Amherst? *

In addition to the Percent for Arts bylaw, Amherst funds the arts through programming at the Recreation Department, Senior Center, and Schools, as well as, to some extent, the Jones Library. The Town Council can continue to support these departments with adequate funding for them to continue providing subsidized arts and culture programming to residents.

What three specific things will you do that will deepen Amherst’s investment in its creative economy?

Much of what is needed to deepen Amherst’s investment in its creative economy is not within the purview of the Town Council. However, there are some things the Council has done, or can do in the future, to help. For example, the Council voted to permit alcohol consumption on the Town Common, which allowed the Concert Series on the Common to thrive this summer. Another example is the progress the Council has made in supporting a performance shell on the Common. The Council could look closely at the permitted uses in various areas of Town to ensure that live performance venues are permitted in appropriate areas of Town.

How would you modify the Town’s current budget process to include funding for the arts?

Budgeting is about tradeoffs. There are many constraints on our budgets – including legal limits to how much we can raise taxes, the residents’ desire for many, many services, and the need to use these funds for both our operating needs and our capital needs.

The annual operating budget to the Town must be for the benefit of all residents. These municipal funds are intended to allow the Town to maintain high-quality services that its residents both need and want. Sometimes we focus too much on “maintaining level services” and not enough on what the trade-off of starting with that focus means, which is that nearly all of the increase in revenue each year is subsumed by increased salaries, thereby rarely allowing enough money to begin new programs or hire new people. We should consider using zero-based budgeting every few years. This is an approach to budgeting that involves developing a new budget from scratch (i.e., starting from “zero”), versus starting with the previous year’s budget and adjusting it as needed. This would allow the Town to assess what funding is actually necessary to provide suitable services, contrasted with a budget that would provide above adequate or below adequate services. If done right, the Town, the Council, and the Manager would be able to finally discuss the funding of each department intelligently, instead of always starting from a “level-services” outlook, without regard to whether “level-services” is actually what we want or need for each program, and then determine appropriate funding levels based on those conversations. 

Amherst is already a cultural destination and a leader in the arts for our region. How can the Town of Amherst promote cultural tourism and better partner with existing cultural institutions? How can it help foster new ones?

Much of what the Town can do to promote cultural tourism and better partner with existing cultural institutions is not within the purview of the Town Council. The Council can, however, encourage the Manager to collaborate with the BID and Chamber to promote the Town, advertise Amherst’s institutions, and apply for grants to help with the efforts.