Cover Story

Taking It for Granted

by Walter Pierce

Gerd Wuestemann
Photo by Robin May

A long-term plan for sustaining arts and culture should be a priority.

Lafayette Consolidated Government’s 2014-15 budget is a tick under $604 million. It’s a 469-page document including glossaries and appendices, yet combing through its arcane pie charts, lists, tables, graphs and diagrams it’s easy to see that we in Lafayette don’t invest much in arts and culture. In fact, we spend more on salaries for employees at our three municipal golf courses — $1.06 million — than we do for arts and culture employees ($954,280).

Total expenditures for city-owned arts/ culture facilities — the Heymann Performing Arts Center, the Acadiana Center for the Arts, the Lafayette Science Museum and a few other scattered sites — including staff salaries and the cost of running them represents less than half of 1 percent of the overall budget.

Mobile, Ala., which is only a little larger than Lafayette, spends about eight times as much on arts/culture. Mobile has several art museums, an orchestra, and professional ballet and opera companies to show for it. (It’s worth noting that a community conversation is already underway in Lafayette about replacing the more than 50-year-old Heymann Performing Arts Center, which would cost tens of millions of dollars.)

“In Lafayette we have something that’s both a blessing and a curse: We have this thing that’s extraordinary and real, this music tradition that’s here and everywhere and it permeates everything we do and everybody’s touched by it. But because it’s so much a part of our DNA in Acadiana, we really do take it for granted,” says Gerd Wuestemann, director of the AcA. “We think that free festivals are free, and we think that’s just how it is, and of course that’s not really true. Those things are not free.”

With PlanLafayette (the comprehensive master plan) approved by the council and (hopefully) adoption of the Unified Development Code imminent — the UDC will serve as the chassis for rolling out the comp plan — Wuestemann is jockeying to create what he calls the Community Culture Plan. By next summer, following a series of meetings by stakeholders similar to the way PlanLafayette was developed, the Germanborn classical guitarist-turned art administrator hopes to present it to the City-Parish Council as an appendix to PlanLafayette and the Downtown Master Plan.

“We really haven’t created a road map yet for the next two decades that says this is important to us, these are our needs and more importantly what are we willing to do for it?” Wuestemann notes. “How are we going to address what it’s going to take to make this really fly? I think creating a Community Culture Plan creates a road map for the infrastructure of the future of the city.”

Wuestemann says the stakeholder process leading up to adopting a culture plan includes assessing our needs and existing assets, looking at funding sources and asking ourselves as a community what we’re willing to do — be it increased tax support, taxing districts, public-private partnerships or a combination of all — to create not only an adequate arts/culture infrastructure but the means of sustaining it long-term.

Wuestemann knows as well as anyone in Lafayette the crux of this dilemma: He was given the keys to what in today’s dollars is a $25 million arts facility with little means of sustaining it financially. The AcA gets $285,000 annually from LCG, which basically covers the utility bills. Some enterprising early fundraising created a $1 million dollar endowment, but like virtually everyone in the arts/culture arena, Wuestemann constantly scrambles for cash to cover salaries, programming and other expenses. The AcA in many ways is a microcosm of Lafayette’s public commitment to the arts.

Yet arts and culture have a huge return on the investment.

“If you’re trying to attract companies, after looking at basic lifeline things like school districts and the health care system, the next thing they’re looking at is what can we do there? Art and culture is an integral piece of that,” he says. “We play a supporting role in economic development but a very important supporting role.” — WP