Disability dispute leads NEA to freeze $565,000 in state funds

August 01, 1991|By Craig Timberg

Failure to make its headquarters and meeting sites accessible to the handicapped has led to the suspension of $565,000 in federal funds earmarked for the Maryland State Arts Council, though the agency said it expects to remedy the problems quickly and spare state artists and arts organizations from funding delays or cutbacks.

Arts council spokeswoman Carol Fox-King said the organization -- which funds scores of individuals and dozens of organizations across the state -- was shocked by the National Endowment for the Arts' decision, conveyed in a letter Tuesday from Anne-Imelda Radice, NEA senior deputy chairman.

"We have made every effort all along to do what they wanted," Ms. Fox-King said of the seven-month-old bureaucratic battle, which led to a 30-day warning from the NEA in late June that the arts council must comply with anti-discrimination laws or have its funding frozen.

The MSAC responded with plans to modify the agency's downtown Baltimore headquarters, located in a historic town house at 15 W. Mulberry St. The changes involved the addition of a mechanical wheelchair lift to the front entrance and the installation of special fixtures in the first floor bathroom. The MSAC also said it would discontinue meetings at two other downtown locations -- the Redwood Tower and the Maryland Communications Conference Center in Legg Mason Tower -- since neither is accessible to the handicapped.

But Ms. Radice's letter said the council "failed to take appropriate action" and called MSAC headquarters "completely inaccessible to the handicapped."

NEA spokesman Josh Dare yesterday cited an "overall deficiency" in the renovation plans, charging that they lacked a timetable for the work, sufficient details about how it would be completed, or adequate provisions for handicapped people during the interim.

"When they open their doors to the public, they have to open doors to all the public, and until they do, we'll suspend their funds," he said.

The $565,000 represents 7 percent of the arts council's budget; the balance comes from the state legislature. MSAC executive director James Backas could not be reached for comment yesterday, but Ms. Fox-King said the agency hopes to comply with the ruling within two months, either by renovating the leased Mulberry Street building, or by moving to a new location. She estimated the cost for either at $15,000, which would come from general operating funds.

In addition, she said tentative arrangements have been made to hold all future public meetings at the Baltimore League for the Handicapped building on 111 E. Coldspring Lane.

Both Mr. Dare and Ms. Fox-King agreed there is very little possibility that MSAC will lose any money in the long run, though it cannot draw upon the$565,000 allocation until the problems are resolved. No grants were scheduled to be released in the immediate future, Ms. Fox-King said, and the remainder of the overall budget is provided by the state, and therefore not subject to the discrimination restrictions.

Most of the MSAC's $7.8 million annual budget goes to organizations ranging from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which this year received just over $1 million, to the Cloisters Children's Musuem, which received $28,700. Earlier this summer, the council released $176,000 to 57 individual artists, ranging from painter Tom Miller, who received $6,000, to poet Harvey Lillywhite, who was granted $2,500.

(The NEA disburses most of its approximately $175 million budget directly to art groups, but, under legislation enacted when it was under the funding gun last year in Congress, the agency now diverts a percentage to state arts councils to allow for greater community control.)

At the core of this dispute is Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits funding to groups which discriminate against the handicapped.

Marilynn Phillips, a Morgan State University professor of English who uses a wheelchair because of a childhood bout with polio, first alerted the NEA to the problem when she filed a formal complaint last November about MSAC facilities.

"The real joy I feel is that NEA is taking 504 seriously and that this may lead to a real remedy rather than an illusion of remedy," she said yesterday of the suspension.

Ms. Phillips, however, was critical of MSAC's plan to make only the first floor of the four-story headquarters accessible, a provision which Mr. Dare said the NEA will accept since Ms. Phillips' complaint concerned only public access, not employment.

She predicted that future action may be taken to force MSAC into making the entire building accessable to prospective employees.

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