3 city arts institutions to split $3 million grant Center Stage, BMA, Walters to benefit

July 27, 1993|By John Dorsey and J. Wynn Rousuck | John Dorsey and J. Wynn Rousuck,Staff Writers

Three of Baltimore's largest and most prominent arts organizations -- the Baltimore Museum of Art, Center Stage and the Walters Art Gallery -- will receive grants of $1 million each as part of a far-reaching program to insure the health of major arts institutions nationwide.

The grants will be announced today by the New York-based National Arts Stabilization Fund (NASF), a 10-year-old organization that has so far awarded $20.9 million to arts institutions from Seattle to New York City.

In Baltimore, the $3 million represents a sizable contribution to the three arts organizations, which have annual budgets of $4 million to $8 million. The money will provide capital reserves to help the institutions plan for the future and to bolster them during periods of tight money.

"This is tremendously important to all of the institutions who qualified for the grants," said Kate Sellers, acting director of the Walters. "NASF support offers in some ways the most difficult type of money to raise, that which bolsters the infrastructure of the organization."

The grants are one step in a decade-long process by which the NASF rewards arts institutions for refining their finances.

In Baltimore, the process has involved a $4 million local fund-raising effort (including $1.75 million from the Abell Foundation) and an additional $2 million from the NASF. Although two thirds of the $6 million total is raised locally, the NASF board must approve all grants.

Aside from the grants announced today, three other local arts institutions are targeted for future funding from that $6 million -- the Baltimore Opera Company, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Maryland Institute, College of Art, according to the NASF.

As of now, the symphony and the institute have budgets large enough to make them eligible for $1 million grants. The opera probably would be eligible for a grant of about $600,000.

Today's grants, to be announced at a World Trade Center reception at 5 p.m., are the largest amounts the NASF awards.

The money, to be distributed over five years, can only be used to help pay off a deficit and establish a reserve fund. Historically, the financing has been awarded to well-established organizations in relatively strong financial health, said Leonard Vignola, NASF's president and chief executive officer.

"In Baltimore you have solid organizations [whose] attitudes about management and planning to improve and grow soundly are excellent," said Mr. Vignola, who will make today's announcement. "We work as a catalyst and on a real partnership basis in an attempt to help them strengthen themselves from a fiscal management standpoint. This is not a quick fix, and our grant is not an operating grant."

Baltimore grant recipients admit the NASF process is long and difficult but worthwhile.

"You hate it at the beginning, but it pays off tremendous dividends," said Ms. Sellers of the Walters, which has an annual budget of $6.9 million.

'Frustrations' cited

Arnold Lehman, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), said, "There certainly have been frustrations . . . [but] I feel better about where we are than where we were." The museum's annual budget is $8 million.

Even though Center Stage went through a similar process with the Ford Foundation years ago, the theater's managing director, Peter W. Culman, said qualifying for an NASF grant "represents the toughest and deepest refining we've ever been through. . . .

"It takes an immense amount of time, and it's burdensome in one sense, and yet the reason for the burden is to keep you healthy. It's like, are you willing to do your exercises every day and watch your diet because you'll be healthier."

Center Stage's budget is just over $4 million.

The Baltimore project is the latest launched by the NASF, which was founded in 1983 with funds from the Ford Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

31 arts institutions

Including today's grants, the NASF has so far awarded $20.9 million to 31 arts institutions in Boston, Kansas City, Arizona, Seattle, New York and Baltimore. It has pledged a total of $36.4 million for the six project sites.

Grant recipients can use the NASF money for two purposes. Part of it can be used to match funds they raise to eliminate current deficits. Although neither the Baltimore Museum of Art nor the Walters has a current deficit, Center Stage will use $145,000 of its grant to retire half of its working capital deficit.

The rest goes into a capital reserve, granted over five years. This fund can be tapped for projects, such as planning a season, but it must be repaid each year. It makes the institution its own lender, rather than borrowing money and paying interest.

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