Battle Looms Over Future Of Hartford Mayor's Arts And Heritage Jobs Grant Program
By JENNA CARLESSO
May 18, 2010
HARTFORD —When layoffs hit the nonprofit company where she had worked for more than 10 years, Lynne Williamson began to worry about her job.
The foundation money and grants that had kept the Connecticut Cultural Heritage Arts Program afloat were drying up, and Williamson, its director, learned that her position would be cut back from full time to part time.
"I felt very vulnerable," Williamson said. "It just became harder to make our budget, and I saw that layoffs were coming closer to program directors like me."
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But the bad news never arrived for Williamson. Her organization received a $35,000 grant last year from the city, part of a program designed to promote the arts and the many jobs in the field. The Arts and Heritage Jobs Grant Program helped preserve Williamson's position and also benefited several of the artists that her organization supports.
"It was like a vote of confidence, like someone saying that we need your work and want you to keep doing it," Williamson recalled. "This is how I was able to stay here and do this."
City officials, at the urging of Mayor Eddie A. Perez, set aside more than $1 million in taxpayer money for the program last year. That money, coupled with $600,000 in federal stimulus funds, was divided among 56 individuals and nonprofit organizations. The grants could be used for anything from wages to paying rent or utility bills.
So far, the program has helped create 185 jobs, including full-time, part-time and temporary positions. It also financed 80 jobs for youths, expanded the hours for 12 jobs and retained 29 jobs, according to the Greater Hartford Arts Council.
Grant recipients bought more than $171,000 worth of materials and services from Hartford businesses and attracted more than 144,000 people to art events in the city, the council said.Perez wants to extend the program another year and has set aside $500,000 in his proposed 2010-11 budget for it. The money would come from the city's general fund.
But Perez's budget also requires a 5 percent tax increase, and some city council members hope to reduce that amount by cutting the budget. Money for the Arts and Heritage Jobs Grant Program is one of many things that could be scaled back when the council meets today.
"I'm not married to anything in the budget," Councilman Luis Cotto said. "The main focus is to bring the mill rate [increase] down to zero, so if the $500,000 has to go, it has to go."
The mayor has made the art jobs program a priority. Last year, he proposed allocating $1.1 million for the program, but that figure was reduced to $500,000 by the council. Perez vetoed the panel's decision, however, and the full amount was restored.
"I'm sure it will come up in our caucus conversations, and we'll have to see how everyone feels about it," Councilman Matt Ritter said of the proposed 2010-11 allocation, "but this hasn't come up as one of our biggest issues. There are bigger-ticket items out there."
The program not only affected artists and those who work with them. It has also helped at-risk teenagers in the city.
A $100,000 grant awarded to Our Piece of the Pie, a Hartford-based nonprofit, youth development agency, enabled the group to hire 77 teenagers to produce and perform a play at Hartford Stage. The teens were given a stipend and each had a role to fulfill, which ranged from writing the show to building the set.
The work taught the teens how to handle responsibility and gave them focus, said Jo-Anne Leventhal, director of development for Our Piece of the Pie.
"I was stopped by some of the families, who said the program had changed their children," Leventhal said. "We wanted our youths to have a new experience and get a real look at an aspect of the arts."
If money is again set aside for the grant program, Williamson, director of the state's Cultural Heritage Arts Program, said she plans to apply for it.
"It's the only way we survive," she said, "and we're not alone."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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