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States, arts at odds

Governors are trying to slash -- and in some cases eliminate -- grants to help cover budget shortfalls.

February 26, 2003|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Everyone knows the joke about government spending: A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money.

In that light, the stakes are paltry when it comes to what state governments spend on the arts -- although in these days of dwindling public treasuries the talk is more about what states are planning not to spend on the arts.

New Jersey needs to come up with $5 billion to balance next year's budget, and the governor's answer includes disposing -- reluctantly, but entirely -- of his state's arts funding, a savings of $18 million.

Arizona needs to make up a $500-million shortfall, and its Legislature's joint budget committee, steered by two conservative leaders philosophically opposed to public subsidies for the arts, has come up with the same answer: erase all arts spending; save $12 million. The governor of Missouri also wants to flatline his state's $3.9-million arts budget in fiscal 2003-04.

New York Gov. George Pataki has proposed cutting the state's arts council budget -- the nation's largest -- from $44 million to $37.4 million. In California, Gov. Gray Davis boosted the arts when times were flush, hiking the budget of the California Arts Council from $20.1 million to a record $30.7 million in 2000-01, just as the stock market boom peaked. Now, in trying to bridge a budgetary chasm -- $34.6 billion by the governor's estimate and $26.1 billion by that of the state's legislative analyst -- Davis has proposed the leanest state arts budget in more than a decade. The $11.5-million outlay would be $2 million to $3 million less than what the state spent annually on arts during the last recession in the early 1990s.

This fiscal year, 42 states cut their arts budgets, for an average decline of 13.4%, said Kimber Craine, spokesman for the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies; California and Massachusetts, where spending tumbled by more than half in 2002-03, took by far the steepest hits.

The coming year's state budget proposals are not all in yet; Craine said that although some governors want to hold arts spending steady or make minimal cuts, "we don't expect 2004 to be any better, given what we're hearing about the kinds of deficits states are facing."

Federal aid from the National Endowment for the Arts won't fill the gap; President Bush has proposed $117 million for the coming year, a tick above this year's $116.5 million. Local governments, at about $800 million a year, provide the greatest share of public art support.

Arts leaders in California and nationwide said that, by themselves, cuts in state support won't be fatal to most recipients. But these flesh wounds come at a time when arts groups already are bleeding from other cuts. A sour stock market and an economy suffering from global jitters has shrunk endowment funds, squeezed private foundations and individual donors and made cultural consumers more choosy at the box office.

Experts say it is rare for all arts funding sources to be hurting at once.

"I'm not hearing any theaters saying, 'If the state grant goes away, we close our doors tomorrow,' " said Ben Cameron, director of Theatre Communications Group, an umbrella organization for nonprofit theaters. "But I am hearing, 'With the cuts, we're at a critical moment in figuring out how we go forward.' "

Nationwide, aggregate state arts funding already has fallen from a peak of $446.8 million two years ago to $354 million this year, according to the research and advocacy group Americans for the Arts.

In California, flagship institutions such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Opera and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art are getting $40,000 to $50,000 from the state instead of the $140,000 or so they enjoyed during the fat times two years ago.

For smaller theater and dance companies, museums and musical groups, the state grant is much lower, with $4,000 the most common amount.

In recent years, about half the state money has gone toward arts education, including schools' artist-in-residence programs. About 15% pays directly for performances and grants to individual artists, and about 30% goes to "organizational and operating support," money that arts organizations can use, for the most part, as they see fit.

Some arts leaders say it's time for more aggressive lobbying. When it comes to nourishing a healthy body politic, they argue, the arts are a main course, not a dessert. Fund the arts, and you'll be paid back in a more enlightened, productive citizenry.

There's also an economic case for the arts: Folks who buy tickets to a play or a symphony or spend a day at a museum also spend on parking, restaurants, gasoline and other add-ons that feed local economies and make the arts an effective engine for jobs and prosperity.

An oft-cited study by Americans for the Arts estimated that the $53.2 billion nonprofit arts organizations spent in 2000 generated an additional $80.8 billion for other businesses.

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