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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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The MSAC's Colvin says that she understands the panic seeping up in Maryland's arts community. "It's a perfect storm," she says. "We've never seen such a reduction before, but given the surprising turn of the economy . . . there will be contractions, but it's not as tough as it is in other states."

And she says she's optimistic about the future of arts in Maryland. "The quality will still be there," she says. "It may look different, but there's a resiliency there in the Maryland arts community. I'm optimistic."

The optimism, however, isn't shared by members of Baltimore's major arts organizations, many of whom worry that the damage could be permanent. The American Visionary Art Museum's Rebecca Hoffberger says she was surprised at the size and disparity of the BRFA cutbacks. The feedback she said that she heard from Johannson at Arts Day was wonderful. "We would never have believed that there would be a reality to a 36 percent cut," Hoffberger says. "The number is apocalyptic."

She says that AVAM's small endowment fund--which she approximates as 10 percent of AVAM's operating budget--will make things easier for the museum to weather the current crisis, but that if the BRFA cuts go through, she warns that reserves will dry up quickly. "We would have 15 months," before she says the situation would be critical. "After 15 months, we'll be in trouble," implying a scaling down of AVAM's operations.

Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Arts Museum, has to contend with an institution whose endowment lost 27 percent of its value last year in the stock market tumble. In the face of cuts from the state, and, still to come, from the city, in late February the museum announced a major restructuring that includes scaling back its exhibitions, closing off the Hackerman House on weekdays, eliminating 16 positions, and instituting a hiring and salary freeze, in addition to staff furloughs.

And Vikan is worried about the slowly accelerating rate of the cuts. "It goes from jobs to programs, from programs to survival," he says. "These are tough times. They're tough for us, and killer times for others." Worst of all, Vikan adds, if funding for the arts dries up, many artists, curators, musicians, administrators, and others who make the local arts scene vital may not be around "in four years, when the state's arts funding will presumably be restored.

"It really caught me by surprise," Vikan says, referring to the BRFA cuts. He points out that both O'Malley and Johansson come from Baltimore, and asks, "Do they realize what this means for the city?"

Like the Walters, Center Stage has a suddenly shrinking endowment fund, and the 36 percent cut in funding is "catastrophic," says Debbie Chinn, Center Stage's development director. "The announcement came after we had already adjusted our budget for the cuts for the coming fiscal year. [The BRFA] is compounding the erosion of endowment and this state funding is a lifeline in these times."

She also worries about the possible cuts in after-school programs, which she says would damage Center Stage's connection with the community. "This is a dangerous cycle," Chin says, "and it could spin out of control."

What arts organizations are afraid of is that the state's arts funding cuts will set a precedent for similar cuts in county and city arts funding, and even adversely affect matching grants from foundations. Such a ripple effect could produce a significant financial fallout for arts organizations, especially smaller organizations that already operate on tight budgets. Those organizations, if they're unable to sustain themselves week to week and month to month, will be forced to close.

While emphasizing that Center Stage will survive, Chin worries that a continuing, four-year decrease in funding may cause some of the larger organizations to leave town or eliminate outreach. "And Baltimore would look a lot different," she says. "These things keep communities together."

Suzan Jenkins, CEO of the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, says that she hopes that a closer look at the budget will make the legislators reconsider the BRFA cuts. "We were told that he did understand how much a deep cut would hurt the arts community," Jenkins says of Johansson's Maryland Arts Day appearance. "Perhaps [the cuts] are attributable to a misunderstanding of the structure of arts and humanities organizations across the board. Maybe they don't understand that the 14-percent cuts have already stripped these [arts] organizations to the core. When you strip the state budget further, these cuts will take the hearts out of the organizations. It will be impossible for many of the organizations to recover. This could be the disassembling of an industry."

Despite this apocalyptic rhetoric, there's less outrage at O'Malley than genuine surprise. In 1994, when the Arts Funds Stabilization Act protected arts organizations from the immediate ups and downs of the economy, Maryland recognized the arts as an economic stimulant. Under the BRFA, that relationship is, in effect, to be suspended for four years. The reality, in a strictly budgetary sense, is hard to avoid, especially in a crowded room filled with interest groups. Maryland's arts industry is beginning to look a little less like a growth stimulus, above the fray, and more like another industry in survival mode.

The survival mode is something Anne Fulwiler, Theatre Project's producing and artistic director, is trying to adjust to. "We were always in a crisis mode," she says of Theatre Project, which, for 35 years, has brought in a steady mix of local, international, and national acts. But this year, she says, is hitting the Theatre Project particularly hard. Fulwiler has reduced her already tiny staff and was trying to adjust to the 14 percent cuts in FY 2009 grants--Theatre Project's annual budget is a mere $222,000--when the news came about the BRFA bill.

"I mean they tell us that we have to cut our budget," she says. "We don't have any more to cut."

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