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 entire region.

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

If only that were the whole truth.

The suburban governments 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 of these counties sell city culture as an amenity when they try to lure new 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.

Howard County surely prides itself on having an educated populace that appreciates culture. A new arts center is being planned in Wilde Lake. Columbia is home to an African-American cultural museum and the Merriweather Post Pavillion concert venue. But as regards support for the regional museum attractions in Baltimore, Howard's a piker.

With 8 percent of the metro area population, Howard picks up less than 1 percent of the support for major cultural institutions. Since the high-water mark of the early 1990s, when Howard was allocating a total of $150,000 for the major museums, its support dropped to $80,000 during the recession and has now crept up to $95,000, to be distributed by the county arts council. On one hand, County Executive Charles I. Ecker says the county's economy is brightening; the county wants to guarantee merit raises for employees for a few years and Howard just got a windfall in state capital aid. With the other hand, though, the county is pinching arts pennies.

The implication is that as the county emerges from hard times, regional arts grants will be restored only after every non-regional need has been satisfied. The suburbs' contribution to regional culture still constitutes thievery: They're stealing a benefit they don't adequately support.

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