Politics & Other Mistakes: Art for art’s sake

6 mins read

Apparently, I’m one of those artist-types. Except it’s not called artist anymore. That term is too, well… artsy-fartsy. It doesn’t adequately convey my critical importance to society. And in today’s difficult economy, conveying your importance is more crucial to your survival than painting, making music or filling the front hall of the Portland Museum of Art with fake bricks and calling it a sculpture.

Particularly if you’re looking for a tax break.

Al Diamon

So, for purposes of government bailouts, I’m renouncing art to take my place in the “creative economy.”

That term – coined by Richard Florida, author of the 2007 book “The Rise of the Creative Class” – seems to cover anyone from a writer such as myself, slaving away in an isolated mountain retreat, struggling to express the deepest yearnings of my soul (“beer, more beer”), to the guy who dreamed up that bonus scheme for AIG executives (“money, more money”).

Just in case some bureaucrat mixes up the two of us, could I get my TARP payoff in small-denomination bills with non-sequential serial numbers delivered to an offshore address?

Besides artists and writers, other occupations that Florida tosses into the creative-economy mix are software engineers, scientists and businesspeople who depend on imagination and innovation. That seems to include everybody from Bernie Madoff to the owners of the MERC trash incinerator in Biddeford.
But make no mistake, the creative economy is not some Ponzi scheme or blackmail-by-stench operation. It’s a major contributor to the financial health of our state. In Portland alone, arts and cultural undertakings contribute $30 million a year to the local economy, according to a 2008 study conducted by arts and cultural undertakers. Statewide, wages paid to creative types amounted to more than $575 million in 2003, which seems to be the most recent year the creative types in Augusta have bothered to compile figures.

That’s a lot of dough. So, how come I’m getting so little of it? It’s simple. The big money in the arts isn’t in ceramic pots, hand-woven baskets or cheap-shot political columns.

It’s in films.

Even a boring made-for-TV mini-series like “Empire Falls,” shot in Skowhegan in 2003, qualified for enough state givebacks to pay my bar tab and that of all my friends for years. Well, months. If we stayed away from the top-shelf stuff.

If I were the producer of “Politics & Other Mistakes: The Movie,” the lavishly budgeted but nonetheless uplifting tale of a struggling writer trying to express the deepest yearnings of his soul, I’d be eligible for a substantial package of tax credits from the state. I’d also be in line to be reimbursed for 12 percent of the wages I paid to Mainers working on my flick (including me), as well as 10 percent of the money I paid to out-of-state labor. With a bit of paper shuffling (all perfectly legal, of course) I could finish shooting this cinematic masterpiece with more money in my pocket than I started with.

Trouble is, Maine’s bribe – I’m sorry, incentive – doesn’t compare to that of other states. I can get tax breaks worth 25 percent of my production costs from Massachusetts, and I only have to spend one-fifth as much to qualify. New York offers 30 percent. Michigan will give me 40 percent. And Wisconsin recently conducted a study that showed it was paying $128,000 in taxpayer money for each full-time job it created in the film industry, compared to $6,200 in subsidies per new worker for every other type of business.

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, the filming of “Public Enemy” starring Johnny Depp generated $270,000 in new taxes for the Cheesehead State, but cost the public treasury $4.6 million in tax breaks.

I mention this because Maine is currently competing with several other states to become the site of the filming of “Bag of Bones,” the stirring story of the state Department of Health and Human Services’ successful effort to combat obesity in children.

Oops, sorry, I seem to have made that up.

“Bag” is actually based on a Stephen King book about a writer living a lonely existence in an isolated house. 

(If the producers need somebody who can express soulful yearning for a fraction of the cost of Johnny Depp, I’m your boy. I can also do this Keith Richards imitation.)

Anyway, the only thing stopping the filming from taking place in Maine is those juicier tax breaks in other states. In early March, several sterling representatives of the creative economy met with Gov. John Baldacci to ask him to throw a few more elderly people out of nursing homes, and use the savings to super-size the state’s subsidy for Hollywood productions. Baldacci said he’d think about it, but there’s already a bill in the Legislature, sponsored by state Rep. Thomas Watson of Bath, to increase tax breaks to filmmakers to a level that makes Wisconsin look cheesy.

Did I mention that “Bag of Bones” is a horror story?

In more ways than one.

I’m ready for my close-up. E-mail me at aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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