How we got here
A History of Cultural Access in Washington State
Stronger, vibrant, and connected communities. Equitable access to community-centered programming. Increased student achievements. Greater economic prosperity. Job market growth. Enhanced quality of life. These are all benefits that access to cultural programs can create or develop. But there need to be policies and funding to transform these from simply words into actions, events, experiences, and opportunities.
Enter Cultural Access, a program created by the state government to initiate exactly those kinds of transformation.
Although Cultural Access first took root in the U.S. back in the late ’60s, it’s still a relatively new concept. Saint Louis was the first city to pass a Cultural Access measure in 1969. Their funding for this fledgling program went to support three major cultural institutions: their art museum, science center, and zoo. Come the late ’80s, Denver County took this idea and made it bloom into a program that encompasses a greater variety of organizations. Since the program’s founding in 1988, Denver County has provided more than $60 million annually to a broad swath of organizations engaged with arts, history, and science. The program requires periodic reauthorization and is regularly approved due to broad community support.
Washington’s interest in Cultural Access was born after the Puget Sound Regional Council conducted a trade mission to Denver. The remarkable benefits that flow out of Denver’s expanded public investment in cultural programs inspired the Council to imagine something similar for Washington communities. After nearly a decade of visionary collaboration and introduction of legislation in Olympia, Washington’s Cultural Access Program was approved in 2015. Senate House Bill 2263 authorized any city or county to establish a program offering sustainable funding solutions to their non-profit arts, heritage, and science/technology organizations when approved by a public vote.
Although the bill envisioned broad cultural support, the state was especially interested in the benefits for students. This is why the legislation requires that every Cultural Access program include educational experiences related to culture for K-12 public school students. This direction may incorporate culture into in-school initiatives and financially support field trips to local cultural organizations.
When adopted by a city or county, Cultural Access authorizes an increase in local sales tax of up to .01%. Practically speaking, that’s 10 cents for every eligible $100 purchase. Communities (except for King County) may also forego sales tax and collect the equivalent amount through property tax. In Washington, sales and use taxes aren’t collected for some essential products like food and medical prescriptions. Click here for a full list of sales and use tax exemptions.
In King County, the average cost per household (not person) for Cultural Access would be $40. Since King is our most populous county, accounting for nearly 1/3 of the state population, the program would generate $90+ million every year for a 7-year authorization. As the founder and proponent of the Cultural Access Program, Inspire Washington is the go-to organization for any community that is interested in this opportunity. We are the champions for King County’s Doors Open program.
King County was the first Washington community to champion Cultural Access. After securing King County Council’s support, the initiative was referred to the voters and placed on the August ballot in 2017, known informally for that county election as Prop 1: Access for All. Although that vote failed to pass by narrow margins, Tacoma successfully passed a similar measure in 2018. Olympia also approved a Cultural Access program for their citizens in 2022. While the Olympia program is still in its initial tax collection phase, Tacoma Creates has already begun to yield very positive results, generating approximately $8 million annually and offering free cultural programming to 74% of its participants. Read their latest annual report, here.
These initiatives provided learning opportunities for not only us at Inspire Washington, but for all supporters of Cultural Access programs across our state. Based on this new experiential knowledge, Inspire Washington has spent the last several years discussing, developing, and advocating for changes related to Cultural Access at both the county and state level.
One of the biggest changes we helped champion is known as House Bill 1575 . This state-wide bill, which passed just last year, expands the authorizing options for Cultural Access programs. Now, cities and counties aren’t limited to voter approved initiatives, as the program may also be adopted by a Councilmanic vote. This means that any county in the state can now implement a Cultural Access program if they introduce a bill that receives a majority vote from that jurisdiction’s elected officials. Since campaigns can often consume large amounts of both time and money, Councilmanic authority might make it faster and less costly for many jurisdictions to implement Cultural Access programs.
One of the other key changes is that all of the funding provisions originally embedded in the state legislation have now been stripped away. Cultural Access was originally very prescriptive with stipulations regarding how the money could be divvied up among King County’s cultural organizations. These provisions favored cultural non-profits with budgets over $1.25 million and some felt that was inequitable. Additionally, King County Council believed their role as the program authorizers was hamstrung by the complicated directives. They desired greater flexibility to respond to their growing and changing communities.
Since then, IW staff members have collaborated with both state and local lawmakers to remove these financial provisions for a more equitable program. Every county, King County included, can now have greater financial flexibility in deciding how to distribute their Cultural Access funding pool. Those decisions are best made at the local government level.
The current King County Doors Open measure for Cultural Access is a Councilmanic one. It was introduced by King County Executive Dow Constantine for the County Council to deliberate this fall. If the measure passes, it would generate an estimated $90+ million total for cultural organizations throughout King County. Every cultural organization that has 501(c)3 status, offers programming available to the general public, and is dedicated to preserving and advancing arts, science, or heritage would be eligible to apply for this new funding pool.
Having a Cultural Access program in King County could be transformative for both individuals and communities. It could allow students to broaden their knowledge of history and develop valuable skills like collaboration or critical thinking. It could help artists receive grants or take part in residencies. It could help dissipate inequities created by zip code or income, such as by offering free entry days to cultural institutions or implementing educational programs within schools.
To learn more about Inspire Washington’s efforts to implement Doors Open, King County’s Cultural Access Program, visit www.doorsopenkingcounty.org. And remember, Cultural Access isn’t just limited to King County. There is growing interest in Cultural Access across Washington state. Inspire Washington is nurturing programs in Snohomish County, Pierce County, San Juan County, Clark County, Port Townsend, Tumwater, Spokane, and Gig Harbor, to name just a few.
Cultural Access might have a relatively short history, but that history has only just begun.