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Bankrupting the Arts

State budget cuts could change Baltimore's cultural landscape forever

By John Barry | Posted 3/25/2009

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Six million dollars. To most people right now, that sounds like large figure. To big businesses and governments, it's merely a number in a ledger. According to Fox Sports, the Baltimore Ravens' payroll is about $94 million. The state of Maryland's projected 2010 deficit, at the moment, is $2.4 billion. But according to many local arts organizations, a $6 million cut in state arts funding--currently under consideration at the State House--could change the face of Maryland arts forever. At present, development directors at orchestras, museums, and theaters across Baltimore are worried that in a year of tough choices, Maryland may be making one choice it can never take back.

"It's frightening," says Rebecca Hoffberger, founder of the American Visionary Arts Museum (AVAM). "This is a real house of cards. Everyone's in triage. [If these cuts go through] it will take Baltimore's arts community a decade to recover at best. And many will not survive."

The arts community isn't the only one that's worried. In a sweltering, standing-room-only hearing room in the Maryland State House on March 3, artists are last in a long line of people slated to make their appeals before the budget ax falls. Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman Conway raises himself heavily to his feet to interrupt one person's testimony. "I've just been given a request," he says, with a hint of exasperation in his voice. "It's 20 degrees outside. It's about a hundred here. Can someone turn it down a little?"

The thermostat gets turned down, and the list of speakers continues. The CEO of a Maryland coal processor explains that elimination of the Coal Tax Credit might put more than 100 employees out of work. One ex-cigarette smoker, speaking on behalf of the Cigarette Restitution Fund, pulls out a Rubik's Cube, twists it around, and explains that this was what her life looked like on cigarettes. Two young, impeccably suited representatives of the Maryland Lottery Commission speak out against a 0.5 percent reduction in lottery commissions. Five librarians, one after the other, give an extended defense of the State Library Network, explaining that, now more than ever, people need libraries.

Budget testimonies aren't glamorous. But for the crowd of Marylanders at the hearing, discussion of one bill in particular--House Bill 101, the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act of 2009 (aka BRFA)--is a high-stakes battle for appropriations mandated under current law, which include libraries, insurance funding, drug-rehabilitation programs, environmental funds, and arts funding. For Gov. Martin O'Malley, BRFA, by suspending the current budget mandate, provides the state one last chance to shave down its $2.4 billion deficit by $606.2 million.

For many of Maryland's not-for-profit arts organizations, the bill represents a battle for survival. The BRFA, in its current form, calls for a $6 million cut, 36 percent of the current budget, to the Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC) budget for fiscal year 2009. The 2009 cuts will be followed by a proposed gradual restoration of full funding over four years. At the March 3 hearing, representatives from Center Stage, Glen Echo Park, and the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County get up to make their case. While each offers different arguments, they all return to the same premise: A $6 million cut may not do much to trim the $2.4 billion deficit, but it would take state arts funding back to levels of the early 1990s.

This reduction isn't just a cut, argues Doug Mann, chair of Maryland Citizens for the Arts, but a permanent shift in the relationship between Maryland and its artists. In 1994, after the recession of the early '90s left many Maryland nonprofits reeling, then-Gov. William Donald Schaeffer's administration passed an Arts Funding Stabilization Act with near-unanimous support in the Maryland House of Delegates. Since 1994, funding for MSAC has increased steadily at or above mandated levels.

The fact that MSAC has operated under the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development is central to this relationship. While many states look at the arts as an ambivalently defined "quality of life" issue, Maryland has identified the relationship as a two-way economic street. The arts are considered an economic driver, with immediate and measurable benefits. MSAC, meanwhile, offers dependable, closely supervised operational support to nonprofit arts organizations.

As of FY2008, the relationship was in full bloom. During that year, Maryland offered $16.5 million to statewide arts organizations. While it was a miniscule portion of the state's budget--roughly $30 billion--it amounted to 8 percent of the budget of many of Maryland's largest arts organizations, such as Center Stage, Olney Theatre, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Baltimore Opera Company, which recently filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. That 8 percent of the total budget has also become, for many of them, insurance against hard times.

Hard times came last October, when the governor's office announced that 2009 grants--which most nonprofits had already included in their 2009 budget numbers--would be slashed by 14 percent. Most local arts organizations had grimly resigned themselves to those 14 percent cuts, along with further cuts in county and city funding, steep declines in income from endowments, and, for some, declining ticket sales. The looming BRFA cuts--which would increase the current 14 percent cuts to 36 percent--however, took everybody by surprise.

"We all expected the [14 percent] cuts," says Paul Meecham, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's president and CEO, standing in the hallway outside the hearings. "This [the BRFA cuts] is draconian. It restores funding to what we had in the early '90s. This isn't being meted out even-handedly."

Meecham says that the BSO, under its FY 2009 budget, would receive about $1.7 million. BRFA's proposed cuts would reduce the state grant to the BSO to $1 million . "This isn't the time to kick us," Meecham says. "We're already on our knees."

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