The Connecticut General Assembly's Appropriations Committee recently outdid itself by validating the egregious and indefensible earmarking of grants to a select few relatively well-to-do arts organizations at the expense of many worthy, poorer groups.
It's a scam, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his crack team in the Culture and Tourism division of the Department of Economic and Community Development should be commended for seeing that this system of permanent earmarks and annuities for the few is not in Connecticut's best interest. Malloy first proposed eliminating all automatic earmarks for the arts and instead sought to have each organization compete for funding. After an uproar from those whose grants were cut, the governor relented by restoring 80 percent of the earmarked funds but still advocating for a sensible, gradual pull back on earmarks that would be replaced with competitive grants designed around strategic goals.
The earmarks pit rich against poor, big against small, entrenched against start ups and communities with special connections against the rest of us. It's wrong. It's been wrong. Each of the four heads of the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism tried to fix it. Every time, appropriations, pushed back and in essence said to the 150-plus worthwhile and even nationally-significant cultural organizations that are not on the gravy train — screw you, you'll get whatever crumbs are left over, we've got the power, you don't and we don't care.
I urge every state legislator to contact cultural organizations in their districts and see how much support they get from the $15 million to $20 million a year the state invests in "the arts." For 90 percent of them the answer will be, "not much." Many will be surprised that help is even an option.
That said, there are earmarks and there are earmarks. When the state enables the Connecticut Humanities Council, the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, the League of Connecticut Historical Organizations or the several grass-roots regional arts councils to manage and dispense merit-based grants to their constituents — that works. That's fair. And it makes the state's support more accessible and accountable.
The governor is doing exactly the right thing by attempting to scale back the earmarks and replace them with merit-based competitive grant programs that have clear and discernible strategic value. The earmarks should be gradually and entirely eliminated and the appropriation committee should be ashamed of itself for capitulating to this wanton abuse of power and influence by a few organizations that muscle their way to the head of a line that many exceptional organizations don't even realize exists. It's got to change.
Connecticut is in no position to substantially expand funding for culture, tourism and the arts. So let's distribute the investment we make more equitably and transparently.
I am a fan of The Bushnell Center for the Arts and it does do good work. But their main business is as a Connecticut venue for the New York theater industry. Does Connecticut really need to provide six figure subsidies for that? The Harriet Beecher Stowe House is wonderful: But it is also one of the best-endowed and richest house museums in America. Does it require a permanent, non-competitive annuity from the state?
Why not the Nathan Hale House in Coventry, the Joseph Webb House in Wethersfield where Rochambeau and George Washington planned the Yorktown campaign during the American Revolution, the Stanton House in Clinton (which really needs the money), Lockwood-Mathews Mansion in Norwalk, the Bush-Holley House in Greenwich. These are each nationally significant cultural attractions as are many of the 100-plus community-based arts and historical museums that preserve and present Connecticut's art, culture and heritage.
And then there's the more than $15 million that's been invested in New Haven's International Festival of Arts & Ideas over the years — that for a couple weeks each year brings in talent, mostly from out of state, to a city that already does art and ideas brilliantly all year long. It's time for the 1 percent that have benefited from legislative largesse to share and accept that fair play, transparency and equal access will make Connecticut's arts and cultural life healthier, happier and more effective.
William Hosley of Enfield is a historical consultant and principal of Terra Firma Northeast.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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