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Art Fair

Gov. Rell's budget shrinks arts funding in the name of fairness

Betsy Yagla

February 10, 2009

Steve Sigel stands to win a jackpot of state arts money for his New London theater under the governor's proposed budget, but he's not exactly jumping for joy.

That's because the amount of state money for the arts would go down overall, and because it could fund venues like his Garde Arts Center at the expense of successful, established events like New Haven's International Festival of Arts & Ideas. And no one wins if that happens, Sigel says.

"There's been talk of the unfair distribution" of state arts funding, says Sigel, the nonprofit Garde's executive director. "If the large organization all of a sudden finds out they're not getting anything, and now has to compete for diminished dollars, that's not a question of equity. The question is, How do we get enough resources to support our organizations that help our communities?"

Gov. Jodi Rell's budget would eliminate $15 million in arts earmarks for 19 of the state's major arts and tourism organizations and replace it with $10 million of competitive grants open to all state arts and tourism groups.

The idea is to level the playing field for public money between politically-connected events like the Arts & Ideas festival and smaller grassroots ones. Rell proposed the same redistribution in 2007 but it was thrown out by the legislature.

Karen Senich, the governor's culture and tourism czar, says an open competitive process is a good process.

"We're obviously in difficult economic times, so the governor's office is trying to find how to use all the money in a fair, open way to benefit all arts organizations," Senich says.

Last year, the groups that got earmarks included the Hartford Arts Council ($125,000); Stamford Center for the Arts ($500,000); Connecticut Humanities Council ($2.5 million); New Haven's International Festival of Arts & Ideas ($1 million); and Waterbury's Palace Theater ($500,000). All would be forced to compete for funds under the governor's plan.

Arts leaders don't agree on the best funding method Is it better to support a few large entities that have regional draws by guaranteeing them money, or to give less money to more groups? But all agree how important state funding is to the arts. A 2006 study for the state Commission on Culture and Tourism shows arts and culture pump $14 billion into the state economy and create 170,000 jobs annually.

Arts organizations' profit margins are dismal, so they depend on city, state and federal dollars to survive. And art and tourism organizations attract money that ends up in the pockets of other businesses, like hotels and restaurants.

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas a two-week festival of dance, theater, music and community discussions in New Haven turns its $1 million infusion from the Commission on Culture and Tourism into $20 million in economic activity for New Haven, according to a study by Quinnipiac University. Last year's festival drew 97,000 visitors.

"This is not a grant. This is not a giveaway," says Arts & Ideas director Mary Lou Aleskie. "We are part of the economic vitality of our community."

Rell would give the 19 earmarked arts groups half their usual funding in the coming year and none the following. Arts & Ideas gets 30 percent of its funding from the state. Aleskie says that would be Arts & Ideas' death knell: "Our ability to continue beyond [this year's] festival is contingent upon the state's support."

On the other hand, competitive funding could help smaller organizations. "The line items really undercut what [the Commission on Culture and Tourism's] message was: to help all the arts groups rise up," says Steve Ginsberg, director of Hartford's Hartbeat Ensemble, a theater focusing on social issues like poverty and the drug war. Smaller groups should get more, not less help, Ginsberg says.

Lou Ursone, who heads Stamford's non-profit theater Curtain Call, agrees. He's tired of seeing large arts organizations grab huge chunks of state money while the little guys compete for the scraps. Well-connected arts groups get hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of state dollars "without doing anything," says Ursone.

Connecticut's Arts Alliance a statewide arts advocacy group of 20 arts organizations has also lobbied to abolish the line items.

"But we didn't want to do it overnight," says alliance president Ken Kahn who also heads the Hartford Arts Council, which receives a $125,000 line item. "We'd like to do it over a period of, say, 10 years. The governor sped up our proposal tenfold. This abrupt cut will hit the line items very hard. I don't know that they can sustain themselves."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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