The suburbs' cultural crime

May 11, 1994

Two years ago, in the throes of the recession, the suburbs that ring Baltimore cut back or even cut out making their fair share contributions to cultural institutions that are based in the city, but that benefit the whole region.

Now, with the economy brighter, many of these suburban governments say they have restored their contributions to the Baltimore attractions that so many of their residents patronize.

If only that were the whole truth.

County governments have restored some of the cuts they made during the recession, but their contributions still fall way below levels of 1990-92.

Carroll County, to its credit, has done better in funding the arts than its suburban counterparts in recent times. The county was the only one in the metropolitan area in 1990 to meet an agreed-upon standard for arts contributions -- 3/10th of 1 percent of its annual operating budget.

But while contributions to worthy Carroll-based cultural institutions have grown (by 33 percent to the county Arts Council and by 6 percent to the Farm Museum), grants to city-based regional attractions total $5,000 in the proposed fiscal year

1995 budget, half of what they were before the recession. (Even Prince George's County, which is in the Washington metropolitan area, donates three times what Carroll gives to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.)

Carroll is home to 5 percent of the Baltimore region's population and contributes 2 percent toward regional arts funding. By comparison, Baltimore City's arts support is nearly double its percent of the region's population. The county's overall budget is returning to where it was in 1991, but regional arts contributions have not.

Four years ago, the then-regional council unveiled a "cultural agenda for the '90s" that supposedly ushered in an era of greater suburban support. The leaders of all area subdivisions -- made a pact that culture, if largely city-based, was nevertheless a region-wide amenity and responsibility.

Unfortunately, all that optimistic talk was its own form of performance art -- based on the fact that suburban governments seem inclined to restore city arts grants in the post-recession only after all of their non-regional needs have been satisfied.

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