For those who like their political debates served up with candidates who actually disagree on a thing or two, the recent Embracing Arlington Arts forum between County Board aspirants actually provided some fireworks – albeit on an issue that qualifies as inside baseball.
Incumbent County Board member Takis Karantonis and his challenger in the June 8 Democratic primary, Chanda Choun, split over whether the local community was best served by having the Arlington government’s arts and cultural-affairs apparatus continue operating as a subsidiary to the government’s economic-development operation.
“On the surface, it really doesn’t make sense to me,” said Choun. “I question whether the Arlington Economic Development director even understands the arts or what the arts are doing. “I want to explore moving [it].”
Moving it? No-sirree, Karantonis replied, suggesting if anyone could find a better place to co-locate the department with than economic development, “I would like to hear it.”
The exchange was prodded by one of the debate’s viewers, who suggested the county library system might be a better spot for cultural affairs.
Karantonis said moving the operation – anywhere – would be counterproductive.
“The most successful cities in the world have their cultural-affairs departments in close proximity – not necessarily subordinate but in close proximity – to economic development,” he said. “Our job here is to provide the means, to provide the support, to provide the nexus, the connection with the economic system. This is essential to grow the arts scene.”
How the arts department ended up under the Arlington Economic Development umbrella in the first place is a story worth telling.
The arts office long had been part of what was then called the Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources. But after the economic disaster and planning black eye that was the county government’s failed Artisphere performing-arts facility, the department was moved to the economic-development operation to keep an eye on the bottom line.
In the current fiscal year, the budget for the cultural-affairs division totals about $2.46 million and supports the equivalent of about 19 full-time positions. The overall Arlington Economic Development budget, counting cultural affairs, is about $8.7 million with about 51 full-time-equivalent positions.
The differing views on the best place for the cultural-affairs operation represented one of the few places where Karantonis and Choun significantly differed.
Their general support for the arts – and funding the arts – received appreciation from Janet Kopenhaver, who chairs Embracing Arlington Arts.
“The industry has been particularly hard-hit” by the pandemic, she said.
Karantonis and Choun were part of a field of Democratic contenders who faced off last summer after County Board member Erik Gutshall died in office, leaving his seat vacant.
Karantonis won the multi-candidate caucus and went on to win the special election held last July. He is serving the remainder of the term of Gutshall, which runs through the end of the year.