Creating the next biennium state budget is a top priority for the next session of the General Assembly. The governor and legislators will have to balance public health, racial justice, education, and economic recovery among other issues. Recently, many nonprofit arts organizations were helped by $9 million in emergency funding from Connecticut’s share of the CARES Act, but the long-term success of this sector depends on the outcome of this budget process.
Most nonprofit arts organizations depend on support from the state, typically from a grant provided by its public state arts agency. The Connecticut Office of the Arts provides hundreds of grants like this each year, though they have diminished in size over the years. As such, many organizations have bypassed this structure and lobbied their legislators to provide a direct earmark for them in the state budget. Because the Connecticut Office of the Arts lives under the Department of Economic and Community Development, these are distributed as directed local funds.
This includes the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, which has received as much as $150,000 and as little as $52,000 per year for services to artists and cultural organizations and Music Haven, receiving $100,000 to support 100% free programs for low-income kids in New Haven for the first time in 2019. This public investment is critical to our missions, but we believe that the strength of our programs will earn strong support in a responsible grantmaking process. This would be a more equitable and transparent way to distribute public funding for the arts.
It’s time for the Lamont administration and General Assembly to eliminate these earmarks and make sure all arts organizations in the state have an opportunity to apply for and receive an equitable and sustainable share of public support. With 43 direct line items, Connecticut provides the most arts earmarks in the country. Puerto Rico is next with just eight. The amounts range from as low as $15,000 to as much as $500,000 for a total of $4 million. This represents over 70 percent of the state’s investment in the arts.
Distributing these funds in a transparent grantmaking process will align us with national best practices. The Office of the Arts is capable of administering effective and equitable grant processes. In fact, it designed and executed the $9 million emergency funding grant in a matter of weeks. Its READI (Relevance, Equity, Access, Diversity and Inclusion) initiative has received national recognition, but only 3 out of every 10 dollars supporting the arts in our state go through a process guided by these principles. The rest is distributed in an inequitable, opaque manner, through these earmarks.
Navigating the pandemic has been very difficult for artists and nonprofit arts organizations and they should be at the table for this transition. They have endured the fiscal fiasco of our state budget woes for many years and have lots of creative ideas. That’s partly how the earmarks came about in the first place. But a budget is a moral document and should reflect the values of this moment. As it stands, state arts funding has decreased 20% over the last 10 years. Those who want to reverse this trend and adequately invest in the arts will have to work together.
What all arts organizations need most right now is multi-year, unrestricted general operating support with simplified, fair processes for accountability. This would allow the arts community to better respond to the needs of Connecticut residents instead of the political process, lobbyists, or wealthy donors. An inclusive and anti-racist process to receive taxpayer dollars will unleash the power of the arts to strengthen our neighborhoods, schools, and downtowns, particularly for low-income communities and Black and Brown residents.
Connecticut definitely can’t recover from this pandemic without the arts, but that is exactly why it’s time for the state to adopt a standard grantmaking process that emphasizes equity, access, and inclusion.