New arts grant system irritates many, pleases few

Barbara Schaffer, the director of development at New Haven-based Elm Shakespeare, hadn’t been too worried last year when the newly reconfigured state Office of the Arts overhauled its grant system.

Instead of giving away money mainly for general operating support as it had for decades, much of the grant system was reformulated under the philosophy of “creative place-making.” A growing trend nationally, it seeks to merge the ideas of arts, community-building and partnership to present arts as an economic driver that attracts more people, arts and business to the cities and towns they serve.

Grant-seekers in Connecticut this past year had to be able to prove all that.

Elm Shakespeare

The outdoor stage at Elm Shakespeare, a production viewed as ”place-making” by its organizers.

“After deep thought and discussion we agreed that turning a public park into a theatre and bringing community together to join in culturally vivacious, engaging and free quality theatre in an urban center was nothing but creative placemaking,” Schaffer said.

She turned out to be wrong.

Elm Shakespeare, which in peak years since it began in 1995 had received as much as $27,000 from the state to plug into its overall $350,000 budget, this year came away with nothing after applying for $20,000.

Dozens of seasoned arts organizations — at least three with “Shakespeare” in their names and many with “symphony,” and “theatre” in theirs — suffered the same fate when grant recipients were announced late last year.

Money aside, what has Schaffer and other spurned applicants — as well as many who actually won grants — equally upset is what they say is a system that still has many flaws. Everyone, including successful and experienced grant-seekers, said the application and the new online process is cumbersome and preparation time was too short.

Faulty peer review

Schaffer and others also faulted a new peer-review process in which three out-of-state reviewers scored the projects, but did not meet to discuss them. Elm had one score that was nearly perfect, another at the funding threshold level and a third very low one.

“Something’s broken when there’s a failing score and an A-plus,” Schaffer said. “Nothing is that extreme.”

Scott Bartleson, administrative manger of Rowayton-based Shakespeare on the Sound, had a similar experience. After years of general operating support in their 18-year existence to supplement their $500,000 budget, the company’s main request was turned down.

“We were ill-favored by one out of the three,” he said of the reviewers. “To be sabotaged by one individual panelist is very, very upsetting.”

The Office of the Arts has heard the complaints.

“I think the process is too complicated,” admitted Kip Bergstrom, who oversees the office, which is now part of the Department of Economic and Community Development where he is a deputy commissioner. He disputed that there were many disparities in the peer reviews, but said his office is already looking at how to revamp the program to address complaints about the application, the online system and the review structure.

“I think a lot of folks really got what we were up to and were very excited about using art in placemaking,” he said. “There were other folks that really didn’t want to be bothered with it.”

The poster child for “getting it” may be A Broken Umbrella in New Haven — an ensemble of about 30 actors who present original productions that reflect the history of sites where they are staged.

“Place-making is what we are so it made a lot of sense to us,” said Rachel Alderman, the group’s president. “It’s what inspires us.”

The group won $44,000 for its eighth production since it began four years ago — a play about the history and relationship of corsets to bicycles, both with ties to Connecticut. Part of the money will go toward rehabilitating a New Haven building where the play “Freewheelers” will be staged.

Even so, Alderman said, the application was difficult. “Maybe there’s a way to streamline it a bit.”

Danielle Mailer (daughter of, yes, that Mailer), a Goshen-based artist and recent convert to public art and grants, won $5,000 for a mountain lion sculpture at the Salisbury library, but she had to hire a grant-writer to do it.


Danielle Mailer, daughter of author Norman Mailer, sits by a public sculpture of her creation in Torrington.

Too technical

“There’s so much terminology, as a layman I needed an interpretation,” she said. “If you don’t speak the language of grant, I probably would not have gotten it.”

And especially this one, said Jessica Morozowich, the grant writer Mailer hired who also happens to be associate director of the Northwest Connecticut Arts Council in Torrington.

“It’s very dense. You get information overload as soon as you log onto the online site,” said Morozowich who informally advised several people on how to handle the application. She was paid to do Mailer’s and another, but had to turn away several clients. She thought the questions could have been more direct with more opportunity for applicants to demonstrate their background.

“Some artists are incredibly talented but not comfortable with Microsoft Excel,” she said. “You can’t make it easy for everybody, but you can make it simpler.”

She’s already worried that the first-year difficulties will scare away applicants this year. “It will take some coaxing to even have them revisit it,” she said. “For those artists and organizations that applied and did not receive funding, it will be even more of a battle to get their participation again.”

The new program is officially known as Arts Catalyze Placemaking. The shorthand is ACP 1 through 4 for different levels of funding and requirements. Level 1 is mainly designed to scoop up individual artists such as Mailer, who were never eligible for general operating support.

Level 4 is the most closely aligned to that old-style support — added as a category in response to pushback from the arts community.

The arts office ended up awarding about $2.3 million in about 135 grants – a few organizations received more than one – out of some 250 applications. Larger grants to fewer artists and groups was the goal and Bergstrom figures he hit that, though the office is still crunching data.

“It was a bit of a Sophie’s Choice in many cases,” he said. “There were very compelling projects — more than we had funds for.”

That problem is likely to get worse. Initial budgets for fiscal years 2012 and 2013 by the Malloy administration put competitive grant money at about $3 million — twice what it had been under previous governors. But rescissions had whittled that to below $2 million, though the arts office was able to supplement with National Endowment for the Arts money.

Limited money

The 2014 and 2015 budgets chop funding to $1.7 million. (There is also $4 million for 20 large arts organizations that receive line items — such as the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven. Those organizations are ineligible for placemaking grants.)

While not enough money is everyone’s first complaint, other concerns from the arts community leadership are philosophical — questioning how to balance the projects the ACP grants are designed to fund with what they see as the needs of classic organizations.

“I’m not opposed to creative placemaking by any means,” said Cindy Clair, executive director of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven and president of the Connecticut Arts Alliance. “However I feel very, very strongly that a role of state arts agencies in part is to help support and sustain a stable arts community. The operating support piece is absolutely critical.”

That concern was echoed by a number of the seven arts councils around the state.

“Yes you can fund cool innovations that drive people to places,” said Tim Yergeau, spokesman for the Greater Hartford Arts Council. “But if an organization can’t hire staff and you can’t pay your bills — you have no project.”

Clair and others were less than thrilled that non-arts organizations, including municipalities, now could and did receive grants, in some cases the maximum $100,000. And there were cases of relatively new, somewhat inexperienced organizations receiving large awards.

Much ire was focused on 9arts, which has existed for two years during which it has produced a single night lighting festival in New Haven each year. It received $25,000. The Connecticut Forest and Park Association also received $25,000 for a component of the Guilford section of the New England Trail. Executive Director Eric Hammerling pointed out the group has done more than one dozen arts projects in recent years.

“If there was more money that would be really great,” Clair said. “When the pot is so reduced to see them get that big pot of money and other organizations get nothing, that’s off.”

Bergstrom called it “griping.” “Big institutions want to keep all of our money in the big institutions,” he said. “We’re not funding organizations, we’re funding projects.”

But that is cold comfort to organizations left out like the New Haven Symphony, which just missed the cutoff for $68,000 for a special event series with Haitian-heritage musician Daniel Bernard Roumain, originally budgeted at $243,000. Executive Director Elaine Carroll said part of the program was eliminated to compensate.

“We want to fund things that are new and exciting,” she said noting that the NEA thought the event constituted placemaking. “To try to do something bold and this happens — is it going to dissuade people from trying?”

The Guilford Art Center came away empty-handed after years of general operating support since the school, shop and gallery opened in 1967. The center will ramp up fundraising to plug the gap, but Executive Director Maureen Belden said she’ll be back applying again in the next round.

“Oh yeah, we have to try it again,” she said. “It has to be different next year for sure. We’ll try again. For sure.”

And Elm Shakespeare?  Schaffer said a donor stepped up to cover the shortfall this year only.

“They didn’t want to see us take the bullet,” she said. “We dodged the bullet, but we can’t dodge it again.”