Arts funding drama takes center stage

Arts organizations in Connecticut had been feeling the love from the Malloy administration: a new home in the Department of Economic and Community Development, leadership that seemed to care what they had to say, new programs, and not insignificantly -- more funding.

But not after last week.

Tucked into Gov. Dannel Malloy's revised fiscal 2013 budget was an 8 percent gouge in the arts funding increase advocates had won a year ago, on top of a 5 percent rollback for the current year announced a few weeks back.

More than either indignity -- arts groups are used to financial whiplash -- the revised budget will force the state's major arts groups that traditionally have been guaranteed funding and appear in the budget as line items -- also referred to as earmarks -- to compete for money.

The change had been expected, but not for another year at the earliest, and it leaves them not only uncertain of how much money they'll receive for the upcoming fiscal year, but whether they'll receive any at all.

"Think shock and wonder," said Mary Lou Aleskie, executive director of the two-week-long International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, in its 17th year. "I have a festival that's going to happen in June and this is mid-February."

The festival's $3 million operating budget included about $800,000 in state funding for fiscal 2012, before the $40,000 rollback, down from a high point of about $1.3 million in recent years.

"It's a foundation I stand on when I go and negotiate around the world for investment in this state," she said, pointing out that economic impact studies show the festival generates nearly $20 million in economic activity statewide. "The continuity and consistency of support as a line item -- I have been able to leverage that all over the world."

Her New Haven arts neighbor, the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, gets about $120,000 of its $700,000 budget as an earmark. Executive Director Cindy Clair, wearing her hat as president of the Connecticut Arts Alliance, pulled together a conference call Monday to plot strategy to fight the restructuring and the cuts. First stop, the Appropriations Committee Wednesday afternoon.

The goal, she said, was to get everything back to the levels and structure passed last year.

That budget had total arts funding at about $15 million each year: $12 million for the organizations that receive earmarks and $3 million (double what it had been) for the small grants program that dozens of arts groups have accessed for years. Organizations are not permitted to receive both earmarks and funding from the grants.

Under the revision for 2013, the total was reduced to about $10.8 million, but more critically, it places all the money into a statewide marketing account along with tourism dollars. Some two dozen organizations that have normally received earmarks would have to compete for a cut of that account.

Clair said on top of that, the new budget language stipulates only that the DECD commissioner "may" provide grants to arts activities. She worries the new structure could also jeopardize all-important National Endowment for the Arts funding, which often requires specific budget information.

"There's no mandate that those dollars will go to the arts at all," she said. "So to me, this is incredibly disheartening."

'In the dark'

At the Stamford Center for the Arts, which emerged from bankruptcy a few years ago and now has a lean $2 million budget, $370,000 of which is a state earmark, Executive Director Elissa Getto called the situation very concerning and confusing.

"If you really want to see my head swivel," she said. "It's February and I know I have to get a budget ready for the board.

"At this point I am like our fellow associations; kind of in the dark."

The governor's budget chief, Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management Ben Barnes, said it was partly a matter of "how to allocate scarce resources."

"We would like to see a process that allows other institutions to compete for funds if they have greater need or can provide greater value," he said.

Not lost on him is that Gov. Malloy's wife Cathy now heads the Greater Hartford Arts Council, which gets an earmark of about $100,000, money the Council would now have to compete for. "I fully expect her to oppose that," he said.

But the budget still faces legislative scrutiny and a vote, with more than a few arts champions in key roles.

"One of the concerns is if organizations have to compete for grants, they won't have a reliable funding stream," said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, who represents the arts-centric area of New Haven. He is worried that competition would thwart synergy among arts groups.

"I think we're going to have a very lively discussion about it," said Democratic Rep. Toni Walker, who also represents New Haven and is co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.

"I'm a little disappointed that we're back at this again,"she said. "We went through this discussion last year and we expressed our desire to maintain arts programs."


The winter's current discontent was preceded as recently as a week ago by near-universal applause for the reorganization of arts by the Malloy administration. The old Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism was dismantled, with the arts component getting its own entity -- the Connecticut Office of the Arts -- within DECD, with Deputy Commissioner Kip Bergstrom overseeing its re-imagination as an economic driver through what's known in industry jargon as placemaking.

"Great art makes great places. Great places attract great talent. Great talent creates great jobs," is the paradigm Bergstrom uses.

To that end, Bergstrom has already started the process of transforming the $3 million grant portion of the arts budget into larger, but more competitive chunks. To win grants, organizations would have to prove their placemaking abilities.

"We have a champion and we haven't had that for a while," said Clair of Bergstrom only days before the budget slide last week. "I think the way he's framing the arts is not just looking at the bottom line numbers, but looking at the arts to shape vibrant communities, and that is what we do best."

Her sentiments were largely echoed last Wednesday at a meeting of more than 100 arts community members at the Westport Country Playhouse. It was the second in a series of five, one in each of the new regional districts the Office of the Arts is establishing, to explain the new grant concept to organizations that do not get earmarks and hear their idea on what the grant guidelines should be.

"We're defining what art placemaking means from bottom up rather than top down," Bergstrom said. "They'll need to show that what they're doing as arts organizations will have a catalytic impact on the community. But we're not proposing to tell them how to do that."

The fact that there was a meeting at all elicited a universal cross between appreciation and shock. "I've been in business for 25 years," said Mark Savoia of Still River Editions, a fine arts digital printing company and gallery in Danbury. "It's the first time I'm seeing some kind of something going on."

Ryan Odinak, executive director of the Cultural Alliance of Fairfield County, said the first shock was the governor's mansion kickoff for City Canvases, a new funding initiative by Bergstrom's office for mural projects in unused city spaces.

"A number of people were saying, 'Wow, the arts haven't been invited to the governor's home in a number of administrations,'" she said. "It felt good to say we have something to offer, and we're not just here for a handout every year."

But among small organizations, especially those that operate largely with volunteer staffs, there was concern they would be at a disadvantage. "We have a couple of paid staff, but it's minimal," said Marie Reynolds, the treasurer on the board of Shakespeare on the Sound, which does one summer production, but year-round education programs. "It's a little frightening," she said. "I have questions more than answers right now."

Bergstrom's plan had been to use the idea of competitive placemaking grants and the City Canvasses project as the trial run for how to eventually shift the earmarks to a competitive placemaking format, but no sooner than next year's budget process.

"My plan was to work with the governor and the General Assembly to start to shift the earmarks to competitive funding in the next biennium, and I believe that is still is the plan," he said, despite the apparent leap ahead in the 2013 revised budget.

"We need to lay the groundwork for that shift and provide a period of transition."