Nashville graphic designer Leslie Haines likes the idea of her artwork rolling along Tennessee roadways, right there above thousands of bumpers, in the vibrant turquoise license plate she designed to promote the arts.
But what she couldn’t picture, before her design won a statewide competition three years ago, was just how important a new specialty license plate — of all things — could be for artists across the state.
It turns out there isn’t much that matters more.
In Tennessee, specialty plate sales account for a majority of public funding for the arts — almost two-thirds of the money given out each year by the Tennessee Arts Commission. They’re indispensable to the artists who depend on that support. But outside the arts community, not many people know how important license plates are in the scheme of all things art in Tennessee.
Using plate revenue is just one way that states fund the arts, and Tennessee has done it better than all the others, bringing in about twice as much money in recent years as second-place California. Sales of specialty plates have brought in more than $4.5 million for the arts commission in each of the past four years. That money created 900 grants in 85 counties last year, for everything from school programs to performance troupes to public art projects.
“Honestly, I didn’t realize in the beginning,” Haines, an associate professor at Middle Tennessee State University, said of the plates. “With all the other cuts happening, it’s really an issue.”
When Haines realized the role of the tags, she had good reason to shamelessly promote her own design.
“I even printed out my own little business cards, with the plate on it, where I could hand them out,” she said.
Arts commission leaders like it, too. They’re banking on the design to inject new energy into the plate program to make up for declining income from other sources, including the National Endowment for the Arts.
“We think it’s a great-looking plate,” said arts commission Executive Director Anne Pope. “We recognize that people make a personal choice when they buy a license plate, and we would like to encourage more Tennesseans to make that choice.”
The Department of Revenue said the new Haines design could be available in six weeks.
Although the plate funding model has been in place since the 1980s, the government funding climate has made tag revenue as important as ever.
The debut of Haines’ design this year marks the first new arts plate in more than a decade. The three earlier arts plates, featuring a fish, a cat and a rainbow, will continue to be available.
But the arts plates aren’t the only ones that benefit creative types in Tennessee.
For an extra $35, almost 100 specialty plates are available. The arts plates send 90 percent of that $35 to the arts commission. A smaller portion of sales from dozens of other plates — 40 percent — also benefit the arts.
Even if combined together, the three arts plates have never cracked the top 10 most popular. Their sales have declined five years running. But some think that’s because not enough people know how vital the plates are to arts funding.
Confronted by a growing demand for its grants, the arts commission wants every dollar it can collect. In recent years, the commission has been receiving more than $9 million annually in requests and giving out about $6 million.
“On one hand, it shows the level of demand,” Pope said. “I think it also shows the strength and the depth of arts activity in the state. Few states rival Tennessee for the quality, the depth, the diversity and the breadth.”
And while the arts here depend heavily on plate sales, Tennessee ranks 14th in the nation for per capita public funding of the arts, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.
Plate money helps efforts such as subsidizing more than 80,000 theater tickets each year, to make school field trips affordable.
“Many of the children, but for that program, they would not have arts experiences,” Pope said.
An annual contribution from the National Endowment for the Arts peaked in 2010 and has ticked downward each year since. And the arts commission, like other state agencies, has sought 5 percent budget trims at the request of Gov. Bill Haslam.
The commission has had to tap into its reserve fund and estimates that pool of money will have been cut in half between 2010 and 2015, down to about $2.2 million.
Pope said reductions were dispersed evenly across programs — whether for schools, rural counties or other areas of focus.
One reduction discontinued most of the funding for unforeseen midyear projects that crop up. This means art organizations have had to be vigilant about looking ahead and using the standard grant process or risk missing out.
The arts commission, due to deliver a new strategic plan in October, has repeatedly heard from art groups that want less “red tape.” An online application process is in the works for those seeking state funds.
“Like the nonprofits we serve, and other organizations, I think funding is increasingly tight and more competitive than ever before, for all kinds of causes and needs,” Pope said.
Plates as gifts
The good news, Pope says, is that specialty license plate revenue has been steady.
And she sees one big change coming that could boost sales: Lawmakers last year passed a bill requiring the Department of Revenue to create a system in which special plates can be given as gifts.
The pure appeal of Haines’ design also could make a difference.
Two of the existing arts plates feature illustrations. One shows a blue cat in sunglasses playing a saxophone, and the other a red fish with a big smile. The third shows a rainbow — a symbol also packed with meaning for the gay community.
Haines took a different approach. Created to resemble a letterpress block print similar to traditional Hatch Show Print posters, her new design shows a yellow sun over a bright turquoise background and the word “ART.”
“You spend $30,000 or whatever on your car, you want to put something on there that you think represents your aesthetic, your sensibility,” Haines said.
With that in mind, she said, she hopes that once the plate hits the streets this year, it will effectively advertise itself.
That could pack a bigger punch than what Haines has been able to do on her own. Those hundreds of business cards she printed to promote the design — she has already handed out every last one.
Tennessee’s popular license plates
About a third of registered vehicles in the state have specialty plates. For many, a share of the $35 added cost goes to the Tennessee Arts Commission for grants given to communities. To learn more about specialty plates in Tennessee, visit www.tn.gov/revenue/vehicle/licenseplates/specialty.shtml. Here’s how the most popular plates ranked last fiscal year, and how many were sold:
1. Great Smoky Mountains: 12,379
2. American Eagle Foundation 11,457
3. Fish & Wildlife: 11,061
4. Agriculture: 10,613
5. Animal Friendly: 9,968
6. Susan G. Komen: 9,955
7. Tennessee Titans: 8,178
8. Choose Life: 7,646
9. St. Jude: 5,987
Source: Tennessee Department of Revenue
Written by: Tony Gonzalez, The Tennessean. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.