Recession-pinched arts community backs bill to stabilize public funding 'Minimal guaranteed base' envisioned STATE HOUSE REPORT

February 12, 1993|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

Bearing painful stories of the recession's effect on the state's visual and performing arts, arts advocates from throughout the state gathered this week in Annapolis to promote a bill that would stabilize public funding of the arts in Maryland.

House Bill 591, introduced by Dels. Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, and Gary Alexander D-Prince George's County, would require that a sum equal to .01 percent of the state's property tax be designated for the arts each year from the state's general funds. (That would have been roughly $9.2 million last year.)

Passage of the bill would ensure a predictable level of state funding for qualified arts organizations and county arts councils as early as fiscal 1995.

Organizations would still need to raise nine-tenths of their annual operating budgets, however. Arts funds granted through the state have generally to be matched nine to one.

Eliot Pfanstiehl, executive director of Strathmore Hall Arts Center in Rockville, says the bill would give the arts "a minimal guaranteed base."

"It also says, on behalf of the government, that arts matter every year.

"And that local arts talents are a resource that ought to be protected right along with the environment."

Sen. Julian L. Lapides, D-Baltimore, says he doubts the bill has much chance of being passed.

"I'm against dedicated funds for favored projects," he says. "I don't think it's proper or fair. If state government begins a series of dedicated funds for the, quote, better things of government, unquote, who will be here to advocate taxes for the less popular areas?

"I think the arts are very important -- they are necessary for the quality of life in a democracy -- but they aren't up there with the absolute necessities of government. I'm all for increased arts funding, but I think it should come from the total pie. . . . We must look at the entire picture and parcel out the funds on a needs basis."

During the past few years, state support for the arts has dropped about 40 percent.

This year, Gov. William Donald Schaefer's budget proposes that the Maryland State Arts Council, which disburses arts grants, receive an increase of $3.7 million, bringing its allotment to roughly $8 million.

That sum would allow the state's major arts organizations -- a group including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Center Stage, the Walters Art Gallery, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Baltimore Opera Company and Olney Theatre -- and at least half of the state's smaller groups to receive 10 percent of their annual operating costs from the state.

Last year, qualified arts organizations received between 5 percent and 6 percent of their budgets from the state.

"Over the past few years, we've seen states suddenly say that they have to reduce their support to arts organizations by half. It wreaks havoc with anyone who is trying to plan a budget," says Kim Craine, spokesman for the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

Although Maryland is the first state to propose using a percentage of its property tax as a measure for arts funding, he says, other states provide steady support for the arts through fees from license plates and corporate filings.

"We've been struggling for over 15 years to find some way to stabilize funding for the arts so that arts organizations would be able to plan and build for the future," says Sue Hess, president of Maryland Citizens for the Arts.

"Because of the arts council's cuts, we've seen many arts organizations and artists leave Maryland. Musicians are playing far less concerts. We have seen a diminishing of the arts."

During the past few years, county arts councils have struggled to survive.

Most arts organizations have eliminated employees, cut back programs -- many of them designed as public outreach -- or curtailed the hours they are open. Many have folded: The internationally acclaimed Annapolis Brass Quintet is one of the latest to announce it will disband. And groups such as the National Chamber Orchestra in Montgomery County have sacrificed executive directors, full-time personnel who are crucial building a future for their organizations.

However, the state's arts advocates have rallied: Maryland Citizens for the Arts, the state's largest arts advocacy group, recently reorganized and will expand its projects to include an annual arts week. Some institutions have increased arts funding: The Baltimore Community Foundation recently pledged $1 million to strengthening arts and cultural programs in Greater Baltimore.

And although the recession continues to claim victims, more arts groups applied to the state for general operating funds this year than in 1992, says Charlie Camp, grants officer for the state arts council.

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