January 8, 2004

Many State Arts Councils Make Their Case and Survive Budget Cuts

By STEPHEN KINZER

CHICAGO, Jan. 7 At the beginning of last year, a legislative committee in Arizona looking for ways to cut that state's budget recommended eliminating the state's arts council. In New Jersey, Gov. James E. McGreevey made the same suggestion: if some agencies must be abolished, maybe one should be the arts council.

But in a remarkable turnaround that has been replicated in statehouses across the country, the councils not only survived budget tightening but endured less painful cuts 12.4 percent in Arizona, for instance, and 23.7 percent in New Jersey. They were among many cultural agencies that are in much better financial shape today than some had feared a year ago.

Only three states California, Michigan and Florida reduced their arts budgets by more than $10 million in 2003. Those reductions alone represented two-thirds of all cuts absorbed by state arts agencies.

Most of the other 47 states made substantially smaller reductions in their arts budgets than were proposed at the beginning of 2003. Arts administrators consider that a major victory, because in recent years their programs have been among the first to suffer.

"There is a realization that the arts are a major, major economic contributor," said Richard J. Schwartz, chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts. "At some point maybe that point wasn't being made as well, but it's certainly being made now. Governmental leaders are very much aware of the contribution that arts spending makes to the well-being of a state, and how detrimental it can be to riddle these budgets with cuts."

David Wilson, executive director of the Kansas Arts Commission, said state organizations, often advised by national groups, "have gotten much more savvy, much better at making their case."

"They aren't just saying arts are nice and good," Mr. Wilson said. "Now they're using numbers and hard facts to show how much of an economic impact the arts have and how important they are for kids."

In California, where a fiscal crisis helped lead to the recall of Gov. Gray Davis and the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the arts budget was cut by 90 percent this year, falling from more than $20 million to less than $2 million, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. In Florida a $30 million arts budget was cut to $6.7 million, and in Michigan, the arts budget fell from $22.5 million to $11.8 million.

Many other state arts agencies were expected to suffer comparable reductions this year, but did not. Sixteen states kept their cuts to less than 10 percent, and in 18 other states the arts budget actually increased or stayed the same.

"Those early predictions were wrong because people made them too soon, at the very beginning of the legislative process," said Jonathan Katz, chief executive of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. "Some people underestimated the ability of the arts community to make its case to public officials, and it's a very compelling case."

"When state governments make up their budgets, they naturally want to support programs that produce jobs, tax revenue, increases in tourism, stronger local communities and other concrete benefits," Mr. Katz said. "I think we've turned the corner in our ability to show that the arts does all that."

State arts budgets for the current fiscal year total $272.4 million, down substantially from their peak of $446.8 million in 2001. Also this year, annual per capita state spending on arts programs dipped below the $1 level for the first time since 1996. Closer study of state budgets, however, shows that many of these cuts have been concentrated in only a few states.

More typical is the experience in Kansas, where the state arts commission took a cut of only 1 percent. The commission has worked with citizens and an advocacy group based in Washington, Americans for the Arts, to prepare studies showing the effects of arts spending in specific communities. One study concluded that in Lawrence in 2001, cultural programs generated $33 million in economic activity, provided full-time jobs for 1,200 people and produced $1.5 million in state-tax revenue.

The successes in Kansas can be attributed partly to the use of more sophisticated lobbying techniques, Mr. Wilson said. "The Internet has had a big impact on our ability to tell our people what's happening in the Legislature, and to mobilize them to contact their own legislators," he said. "We've been able to reframe the argument, and that has really turned things around for us here in Kansas and, I believe, in other states as well."

The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies is one of several groups that gave local arts advocates advice on lobbying last year. In one mailing to members it provided tips on speaking to legislators. "Don't focus too much on the intangible benefits of your issue," the mailing said. "Understand what matters most to that politician and how the arts relate to their agenda. It may be the arts' role in promoting tourism or improving education or reducing crime. Experience has proven that the arts win attention when they are part of a broad agenda of public-policy concerns. Offer concrete information about the reach of the arts in your state and the impact of public funding."

Arts councils, like other public agencies, have been severely affected by fiscal crises that have reduced budgets in almost every state. Arts budgets have been under pressure for several years. In Massachusetts, for example, this year's arts council budget was the same as last year's, which was down 62 percent from the year before.

Alarmed by budget cuts like that in recent years, arts organizations waged intense campaigns in many state capitals during 2003. Although arts councils receive an average of only 0.048 percent of total state spending from general funds, according to the assembly of arts agencies, they have been easy targets for legislators looking for places to trim budgets.

Many arts agencies have won over legislators by assuring them that their grants are not concentrated in big cities but spread statewide. Some, like the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, have even invited local legislators to pass out grant checks in public ceremonies.

"In the past most of our support was focused on Philadelphia and Pittsburgh," said Philip Horn, executive director of the Pennsylvania council. "That didn't give legislators from other areas much reason to be supportive, and it fed the impression that spending money on the arts is charity for the rich. Having these legislators hand out the checks might have seemed crass at first, but it's had a great impact in showing them how much these grants can do for local communities. It begins to change the image."

The budget for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts increased by 1.9 percent this year, from $13.7 million to $14 million. One reason that many Pennsylvania politicians support the arts, Mr. Horn said, was because that state lacks term limits for legislators and governors.

"When you're coming in new, you have so much stuff coming at you that arts seems like a very low priority," he said. "People who have been around a while are more likely to see the benefits of these programs."

States with acute fiscal crises are still most likely to make deep cuts in arts budgets. "We were decimated the literal use of the word applies," said Adam Gottlieb, spokesman for the California Arts Council. "Every agency has had to tighten its belt, but we lost our belt. We were unable to make our case. The silver lining is that we're still here, which is something, since we were threatened with elimination. But still, California now has the dubious dishonor of being the state with the lowest per capita spending on the arts."

Robert L. Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, said that arts budgets tend to follow the rise and fall of state economies.

"Not all economies are as bad as California or Michigan or Florida, and that's why you aren't seeing such big slashes," Mr. Lynch said. "Arts funding went down in the last few years because of Sept. 11, the economic downturn and the dot-com fallout. Now, with economies starting to recover and the stock market rising, arts budgets are better able to hold their own."

"My optimism is not a Pollyanna optimism," Mr. Lynch said. "Every vote to appropriate money is a hard vote for state legislators. But when I look at discussions about this issue, whether it's at the federal, state or local level, I see a lot more people, legislative leaders, articulate and positive about the value of the arts. The arts are seen not as being an impediment to economic growth, but as part of the solution. Not everyone feels that way, but I see that attitude as being on the increase."


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