The Suburbs' Cultural Crime

May 11, 1994

Two years ago, in the jaws of the recession, the suburbs that ring Baltimore cut back -- or, in Anne Arundel County's case, 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, 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.

The suburbs have restored some of the cuts made during the recession, but their contributions are still way below 1990-'92 levels, when the counties as a group pledged to treat a dozen or so major city-based institutions as the regional jewels they are. All the counties sell city culture as an amenity to lure new %J business, yet the suburbs still seem to view these stipends more as goodwill gifts than as a responsibility to the region's educational and economic well-being.

Last spring, County Executive Robert Neall said he couldn't budget any money for city museums lest he agitate the County Council. County officials wouldn't consider cutting garbage collection to zero, but they knew they could shirk arts funding without political penalty because county residents could continue to patronize the regional attractions. Mr. Neall has promised to restore half of the money he should have appropriated this year and is budgeting $152,500 to 11 city cultural institutions for next year. Generous? Far from it.

While the county's overall budget grew by 4 percent since fiscal 1991, its city cultural contribution has dropped by 40 percent from a $252,500 grant in '91. That belies a commitment the counties made in 1990 to increase arts funding.

Two years ago, the metropolitan council determined that Baltimore City contributed about $18 per resident to the region's culture hot spots, while the five metropolitan counties combined spent less than $2 per head. Anne Arundel now spends less than $3 per head. It's a baby step in the right direction when the suburban leaders had previously promised great strides. The county executives may consider such criticism unfair, after restoring arts cuts of a year ago. But their cultural contributions continue to constitute thievery: They're stealing a benefit they don't adequately support.

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