The suburbs' cultural crime

May 11, 1994

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

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

If only that were the whole truth.

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

When the metropolitan council measured cultural support a few years ago, Harford County fared the worst. While cash-strapped Baltimore City contributed $18 per resident, Harford anted up 41 cents. Harford didn't cut its arts aid as did other suburbs during the recession, but it had little to give, since it contributes less than 1 percent of the region's cultural aid with 8 percent of the metro area population.

Meanwhile, at Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery, free visits by Harford school groups ballooned by 37 percent from fiscal year 1992 to fiscal '93 (and grew by 30 percent the year before that). Yet Harford's contribution to the Walters this year increased only 10 percent to $11,000.

Baltimore County isn't much better. Its proposed contribution for fiscal '95 is $732,000, better than last year but well below its $1.2 million contribution in fiscal '92. Among the other jurisdictions, Anne Arundel is budgeting $152,000, $100,000 less than it gave in '91; Carroll is budgeting $5,000, half of its '91 grant; Howard has proposed $95,000, compared to $150,000 four years ago.

A government liaison for one city museum best described the response by suburban leaders: "It's difficult to build support for positive things. It's much easier to get out there and say, 'No new taxes.' Those are the voices they're listening to."

The county executives may consider such criticism unfair, after restoring part of the recent cuts. But their cultural outlays still constitute thievery: They are stealing a benefit that they don't adequately support.

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