Arts may face 'disastrous blow' Plan would phase out city arts funding.

February 11, 1992|By Sandy Banisky

Walters Art Gallery director Robert Bergman stood Sunday amid throngs of visitors -- 8,200 people, the most ever to tour the museum on a single day. But instead of delighting in the turnout, Mr. Bergman was fretting about sobering news from City Hall.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's Cabinet released a draft report Friday on government reorganization that suggests the financially strapped city phase out all support to cultural institutions -- a sum that exceeds $10 million for fiscal 1992.

For the Walters, whose $6.9 million budget includes $2.2 million in city funds, the loss would be "a disaster."

Phasing out the funds "is not like sliding down a gentle hill," said Arnold Lehman, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. "It's like falling off Mount Everest."

Leaders of other Baltimore museums, theaters and art programs -- programs that already have reduced staff, shortened hours and raised prices -- say they don't know what else they can cut.

The Cabinet proposal tempered Mr. Bergman's mood Sunday as he watched the crowds drawn by programs marking African-American Community Day.

"I thought there's just some kind of irony of my being in the midst of this amazing expression of participation while at the same time readying myself to deal with this potentially disastrous blow," he said.

At the Baltimore Museum of Art last night, the trustees were meeting and the executive committee scheduled an emergency meeting for today to discuss how the museum should try to fend off the loss of city support.

The suggestion that City Hall get out of the business of supporting the arts appears only briefly in the draft report delivered last week to Mr. Schmoke by his Cabinet.

Ernest Freeman, the city's planning director, said the proposal is only that -- nothing definite, just an idea that the mayor wants citizens to respond to.

But he said the idea developed as Cabinet members tried to redesign city government to deal with a smaller population and a tighter budget.

"Culturals are an important part of lifestyles, of how a city is perceived," Mr. Freeman said. "But the reality of it, too, is that we've got a number of services that we deliver to citizens. Some of them are critical. Some of them are important."

Arts and culture fall into the category of important. Critical was reserved for such services as firefighting and police protection.

Clinton R. Coleman, spokesman for the mayor, said Cabinet members started by reconsidering all the services City Hall offers.

"The consensus," Mr. Coleman said, "was it [arts and culture] was something that it is good to have. It was good for the quality of life. But the question came back: Can we afford it? Can we get more corporate involvement? I think the consensus was: We ought to try."

Robert Keller, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, composed of the region's largest corporations, said a city has to offer more than essential services.

The arts attract customers and, thus, provide "direct dollar benefits, in that when people come into the city they spend money," Mr. Keller said. "But, more importantly, we look at [cultural programs] as something that makes a community full and rich and alive," he said.

Concerned about keeping businesses happy and the economy healthy, the GBC promotes Baltimore's arts community as part of a package meant to bring new companies here and keep good workers.

"I'm an optimist," said Mr. Lehman, at the Museum of Art. "And I believe Mayor Schmoke and the leaders of our community and the people of our community will not let this happen. There's a great deal at risk."

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