Art saves lives. If that seems like a stretch, ask Shawn Roberts, who experienced unthinkable tragedy as a child growing up in Rainier Valley. She felt unmoored and without purpose as a young teen until she set foot in her first dance class. The connection was instant and started a life-long love of the craft.  

Shawn credits dance with being the light that pulled her through a very dark time, an outlet that gave her purpose and focus in the face of tragedy.  

Today, she has dedicated her life to making sure that others have access to that same light and outlet.  

If ever you needed proof of the transformational impact of science, heritage, and the arts, Shawn is it. And the programs that pulled her through have the power to pull many individuals through.

Such programs got a boost like never before Tuesday, as the King County Council unanimously approved a new transformational arts and culture levy that will uplift its residents, revitalize underserved communities, and enrich its educational landscape. The seven-year levy, called Doors Open, is projected to provide nearly $800 million in funding through spring 2031 and holds immense promise for King County's well-being, economic growth, and, most importantly, our people.

The 9-0 Council vote masks all the hard work it took to get here—multiple trips to the state legislature, a narrowly defeated 2017 vote, and extensive outreach to build a more responsive and equitable public investment. But it doesn’t mask how vitally important we know this program will be. Doors Open is a science, heritage, and arts levy that will fund equitable access, support programming in public schools, increase tourism and revenue, and feed the workforce pipeline to the arts and culture sector through a 0.1% sales tax.

Doors Open is rooted in the belief that public investment in arts, heritage, and science pays off with more jobs, better educational opportunities, and stronger communities. It builds off the success of similar models in the Denver metro area and Tacoma. Originally approved in the early 1990s, Denver’s Scientific and Cultural Facilities District is their region’s largest single funding source for arts, cultural and scientific organizations, consistently providing stability and momentum for a cultural sector that generates $2.6 billion in annual economic activity. Closer to home, Tacoma’s cultural access program, Tacoma Creates, has distributed funding to 56 arts, culture, heritage, and science organizations and the results speak for themselves: 1,185 programs were produced by Tacoma Creates-supported organizations for the public and youth education, with a vast majority of the programs free for all participants. We can expect to see even bigger results here in King County.

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, arts and culture organizations are still reeling and deep in recovery mode. According to a recent study by ArtsFund, across 121 reporting organizations, there was a $95.9 million (21%) decrease in overall revenue and a $68.5 million (20%) reduction in operating budgets in 2020 alone. Des Moines’ Ailey Camp, launched by Shawn Roberts—a free, six-week, personal development camp that uses dance to teach key life skills to 60 middle schoolers from all over the county—was forced to trim one full week of camp this summer because transportation costs had risen so drastically. With half of its funding directed at supporting operating and programmatic expenses for organizations countywide, this levy will literally help keep the doors open for some of our most essential but struggling arts and culture entities.  

Similarly, when schools are cutting critical arts and music programs to balance budgets, Doors Open will step in with at least $12 million annually for public school students to provide field trips, before and after-school initiatives, student transportation, youth internships, and free or reduced-cost ticket programs. In voicing their support of Doors Open, PTAs throughout the county have highlighted the positive impact that the levy will have on students of color, those from diverse linguistic backgrounds, lower-income families, and students with special needs. Studies have shown that science, heritage, and arts programs lead to improved educational outcomes and greater community engagement, particularly among low-income students.

And let’s not overlook the economic impact of Doors Open. Science, heritage, and arts organizations do so much more than put on nice-to-have plays and exhibits. They are vital drivers of tourism, revenue, and revitalization, contributing 10.8% of the state's GDP and supporting nearly 190,000 jobs statewide. The levy also supports our “creative economy,” a hotbed of innovative minds that include creative professions like sound designers, 3D technologists, and digital animators.

Doors Open will give people in every corner of King County more opportunities to explore and experience the arts and culture that enriches all our lives. Specifically, a quarter of the funding is targeted to foster new cultural centers and organizations outside of Seattle. Arts and cultural entities outside of Seattle will be eligible for all the available Doors Open funding. By spreading these investments across King County, we will bring cultural experiences to the doorsteps of some of our most economically and culturally diverse communities.

And while the 0.1% sales tax is not what we would choose, it's the funding tool we have to work with, and the work is badly needed. These dollars will be directed back to the communities that most need them, helping to offset any regressivity. The cost to an average household is just $40 each year, and the return on that investment is profound.

Arts and culture aren’t a “nice-to-have,” they are an essential part of healthy individuals and healthy communities. Now with the King County Council’s vote, arts and cultural organizations from across the county will open doors to transformative science, heritage, and arts experiences for all our residents, bridging the gaps for economically and geographically underserved populations. This is a step toward equity, economic development, and expanding access to more corners of King County and we can’t wait to get started unlocking a brighter future for all of our residents. 

Jeanne Kohl-Welles represents District 4 on the King County Council, which includes Belltown and northwest Seattle. She’s championed access to arts and culture programs for decades in the state House and Senate and on the Council. With her retirement approaching at the end of the year, she considers the passage of Doors Open a major capstone to her over 30-year-long career.

Claudia Balducci represents King County District 6 on the King County Council, which includes Bellevue, Kirkland, Mercer Island, Redmond, and the Points Communities. She has personally witnessed the transformational nature of access to the arts in her own family.

Manny Cawaling is the Executive Director for Inspire Washington, a merger of Cultural Access Washington and Washington State Arts Alliance. A Seattle native, Manny has been working professionally as an artist and cultural leader for nearly 30 years.