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Banding together to speak out on budget

Arts leaders protest proposed state funding cuts, saying school and nonprofit programs would severely suffer.

June 24, 2003|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

When he was 13 years old, actor Tim Robbins became involved in a government-funded nonprofit arts organization in New York City.

"I did many shows for free there, and I remember being paid $25 a week one summer," Robbins said in an interview the other day. "That investment of $25 has paid off pretty well for the government, considering the amount of taxes I pay."

Robbins, a founder of the Actors' Gang, repeated his story -- to appreciative laughter -- Monday at a hastily arranged news conference at the Actors' Gang Theatre in Hollywood, where representatives of the arts, entertainment, public relations and journalism gathered to protest a planned budget slash at the California Arts Council. The cutback would reduce the CAC's funding from $22.4 million this year to $8.4 million next year.

The governor's revised May budget for fiscal 2003-04 proposes the reduction, which would eliminate funding for many folk arts programs and educational outreach and multicultural arts initiatives. The state faces an overall deficit estimated at nearly $40 billion.

Robbins, who said he wrote a letter about four months ago to Gov. Gray Davis protesting arts funding cuts, pointed out that without such funding, many arts groups will be unable to help fill the gap in educational programs that have already been severely cut in public schools.

"When you are a nonprofit arts organization and your sources of financing start to dry up, you put your money into the survival of the nonprofit," Robbins said. "What suffers is your extra programs, and oftentimes those programs have to do with schooling."

Other speakers touting the importance of the arts included author and screenwriter Antwone Fisher; actors Michael York and Fran Drescher; Gil Cates, producing director of the Geffen Playhouse; David Tokofsky, a board member with the Los Angeles Unified School District; and writer Carol Muske-Dukes.

"Without the arts, I would probably be in jail," said Fisher, whose autobiography about his troubled youth became the basis for the film "Antwone Fisher," which was directed by Denzel Washington.

Cates said in an interview that while the effects of the CAC cuts on the Geffen would be minimal, they would weaken the theater community as a whole.

"I'm not saying that we should be forced to choose between medical, fire, safety and theater," Cates said. "But I'm saying that in the mix, I feel like Rodney Dangerfield -- we get no respect."

Monday's event was the first to be organized by Media in Action, a new group made up of professionals in journalism, public relations, film and television who want to help draw attention to selected causes, and the Creative Coalition, a social and public advocacy organization of the arts and entertainment community established in 1989. Writer Cliff Rothman, founder of Media in Action, said news reports alerted him to the proposed cuts 10 days before.

Robbins said he was unsure whether the event would cause a change of heart in Sacramento, but added: "I know that if there was no gathering, there would be absolutely no effect. I think we all have to do what we can to try to call attention to this."

In an interview before the news conference, Kristin Margolis, government affairs liaison for the CAC, agreed.

"There is time for change," Margolis said. "The legislature has not yet voted on the budget. An effort that is organized by arts leaders in the state is something that will get attention."

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