$6 million arts fund in the works Major institutions in Baltimore to gain

March 01, 1991|By Eric Siegel Sun art critic John Dorsey contributed to this article.

A special $6 million fund to provide long-term financial stability for Baltimore's largest arts institutions is nearing completion, key participants in the project said yesterday.

The fund is to consist of $4 million from local corporations and foundations and $2 million from the National Arts Stabilization Fund, a private organization that has helped with similar programs in five other U.S. cities.

Likely recipients include the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Baltimore Opera Company, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Center Stage, the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Walters Art Gallery.

The program would provide working capital to reduce institutions' vulnerability to economic pressures, as well as budgeting and planning assistance. The money would be paid out over a minimum period of five years, with a ceiling of $1 million per organization.

Unlike many grants that go toward operating expenses or special projects, the money would be earmarked to help organizations maintain liquidity and avoid borrowing money at high interest rates.

"This money displaces none of the funds that need to be raised by the various organizations locally," said Joseph M. Langmead, a former president of the Center Stage board who is serving as chairman of the organizing group, known as the Baltimore Arts Stabilization Project.

Mr. Langmead, a partner in the accounting firm KPMG Peat Marwick, said additional local funds need to be raised to qualify for the national arts group's support but expressed hope that the project would "become a reality" in the next four to six weeks.

He said the largest local contributors to the project had been the Abell Foundation, which gave $1.75 million, and the Times Mirror Foundation/The Baltimore Sun, which gave $400,000.

Marcia Thompson, president of the New York-based NASF, which receives funds from the Ford, Mellon and Rockefeller foundations, said the Baltimore project had been in the planning stages for two or three years and indicated it was just a matter of time before it was operational.

"Certain things have to be accomplished before this project will go forward, but we don't see anything to keep it from going forward," she said.

Under NASF guidelines, to qualify for a grant an organization must have been in existence for a minimum of five years and have an annual operating budget of at least $500,000. The guidelines also set up strict goals for liquidity, artistic reserves and other financial priorities.

Potential recipients hailed the possible creation of the fund, which comes as many arts organizations are reeling from the effects of the recession and a cutback in government aid.

"Certainly, it comes at a good time," said John Gidwitz, executive director of the BSO. "In part, we would see it as recognition and reinforcement of our commitment to maintain a financially stable organization."

"I am very excited about it," said Michael Harrison, general director of the Baltimore Opera, which averted bankruptcy last year with an emergency $1 million fund-raising campaign. "It provides encouragement to an organization to set up certain guidelines that will serve them well in the future."

NASF programs exist in Boston, Kansas City, Mo., Phoenix, Seattle and New York. The NASF began in 1983 and has received high marks.

"I think what it has meant is that our major organizations are becoming better organized and having better financial controls," said Ellen Sollod, executive director of the arts commission in Seattle, where 10 organizations are being supported by $7.5 million in funds.

"It's a program that is not very glamorous but that has worked very well," said Lee Dennison, assistant director of the challenge and advancement program at the National Endowment for the Arts.

"The one criticism -- the only criticism -- I have heard is 'What about the small groups in town?' " she added.

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