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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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For many people in the tightly knit Baltimore arts community, BRFA is a particularly harsh blow. O'Malley, for them, was not only a mayor, but a fellow artist, a perennial participant with his band O'Malley's March in the MSAC-funded Artscape summer festival. And last year, the relationship between the arts community and the musical governor appeared to be thriving. Gov. O'Malley proposed an increase in MSAC funding from $16.1 million to $16.4 million in a January 2008 speech that cited the results of Imagine Maryland, a statewide arts survey. It trumpeted the value of the arts in language that a budget director could understand. Not only are 14 million Marylanders "active participants" in the arts, in FY 2007, the arts added $1.2 billion to Maryland's economy, and 15,000 full and part-time jobs.

For more than a decade, Maryland Arts Day has been a celebration of this relationship. On Feb. 10, when roughly 400 members of the statewide arts community descended on Annapolis for the annual event, there was a little more urgency in the air. The aim, as conveyed by attendees from arts organizations, was to get state legislators to reconsider an anticipated 14 percent cutback in arts funding. O'Malley was not present, but the recently-appointed secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED), Christian Johansson, attended.

For most artists, Johansson was an unknown quantity--when he showed up at Arts Day, the 36-year-old appointee was only two weeks into his job. He had been appointed by O'Malley after establishing a reputation as the youthful leader of the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore, a "public/private partnership that unites business, government and educational institutions to market Greater Baltimore as a highly desirable region for new business growth and investment," according to its online mission statement. In a move that many from the arts community saw as encouraging, Johansson chose Dominick Murray, occasional vocalist with O'Malley's March, as his deputy secretary.

According to all present, the Arts Day meeting went well. Attendees say Johansson made no promises and spoke of tough times ahead, but he also acknowledged the role of arts in stimulating the economy. Since Maryland Arts Council funding comes out of the Department of Business and Economic Development, it felt like a solid partnership to the people who heard him.

A week later, BRFA was introduced and MSAC learned that its budget would be reduced by 36 percent in 2010.

With his tenure barely a month old, Johansson clearly walked into a budget mess that was not of his own making. In a Feb. 19 presentation before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education and Economic Development, Johansson's department asked for several changes to the proposed cutbacks as recommended by the Department of Legislative Services.

1) He opposed the $2 million reduction in the Film Production Rebate Program from its current $4 million level "because it threatens our capacity to meet current commitments."

2) He opposed the recommendation to abolish three DBED positions "because we are in the midst of realigning our staff to reflect my priorities such as rebuilding in-state business confidence." These positions would include the technology policy advisor ($142,000), and positions in the Office of Business and Economic Relations ($115,000) and Policy, Planning, and Research ($115,000).

3) He opposed the $1 million reduction to the nano-biotechnology grant program, a successful partnership with University of Maryland.

4) He also opposed the reductions to a number of Maryland grant programs providing assistance to economic-development partners statewide, small businesses, military alliances, and film festival sponsors. These programs have experienced significant cost containment reductions in recent years.

Johansson, meanwhile, endorsed cutbacks in the arts funding: He noted that a $6 million reduction for the MSAC was "necessary to balance the budget for FY2010 and FY2011," and supported the plan to restore funding levels between FY2012 and FY2014. To many, it was a disproportionate cut at the arts.

"It's absolutely unthinkable," says Scott Johnson of Maryland Lawyers for the Arts. "I mean, look at the [DBED] budget itself. Almost everything taken from it is out of the arts. It's a cliché. Take out of the arts. And then you look at the whole budget. How much is arts to begin with? $16 million out of, what?"

The grand total of the operating budget for DBED in 2010 is $113 million. But with a 13.8 percent cut in the DBED budget from 2009 to 2010, tough times have led to tough choices. The one area with a significant increase in the DBED 2010 budget is the biotech industry, which enjoyed an expansion of tax credits as part of Gov. O'Malley's 2020 Bio Initiative, which proposes a 10-year, $1.3 billion plan for biotechnology development. In the same budget, DBED allocates $5.2 million in "general and special funds" for the newly created University of Maryland Medical Biotechnology Center, which is funded, according to DBED's operating budget data, with resources from various divisions within the center. The $6 million decrease in funding for the arts, then, is roughly equivalent to the $5.2 million being spent on the biotech center.

In the Baltimore Business Journal, meanwhile, Heather Warnack reported that under Johansson, the DBED will be granting Morgan Stanley $1 million from its sunny day fund to "assist the company in relocating and expanding from Fells Point to the proposed Harbor Point project nearby." The DBED will also be offering $2 million in nano-biotics grants.

The truth is, choices have been made. And, plainly stated, the state's dwindling funds are not being focused on the arts. To some of Maryland's arts workers, the four-year suspension of the mandate is a sign that the state's growth strategy is moving away from the so-called "creative class" that O'Malley touted while mayor and toward biotech.

"The governor had to make a lot of tough choices," says Christine Hansen, deputy press secretary for O'Malley, in a March 13 phone interview. "There will be a temporary reduction in the [arts] fund in FY2010, level funding in 2011, and funding will increase to the mandated levels over the next two years."

When asked for comment, Johansson's office referred calls to Theresa Colvin, executive director of the Maryland State Arts Council. Colvin says that the BRFA legislation cuts are considerable, but that "in these times" that O'Malley needed to amend the 1994 mandate. "But the governor also sent a message that he wanted to restore funding to prior years over the four-year period," Colvin says, adding that O'Malley also "fully realizes" that the legislature has the ability to address that adjustment in the funding mandate, and that it's "in their hands" now.

But Keith Haynes (D-Baltimore City), deputy majority whip of the Maryland General Assembly and member of the Appropriations Committee, claims that the funding amount is actually in the governor's hands. Speaking to this reporter immediately after receiving new estimates of revenue shortfall from Maryland's Board of Revenues of Maryland's Budget Deficit from $1.9 billion to $2.4 billion on March 13, he says it's unlikely that any cutbacks will be decreased.

"The General Assembly does not have authority to restore, only to take away," he says, clarifying that the Assembly approves or declines funding, not decides dollar amounts. He acknowledges, however, that the delegates can reject the BRFA in its current form.

"Let me be clear," he says. "I support the arts in Baltimore and the state. To the extent that we can restore it to the BRFA we will. But right now, we're focused on holding the line and keeping the cuts from going further."

In other words, the 36 percent reduction of arts funding could, given the economic crisis, become even larger.

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