Though federal funding for the arts and humanities may have won a reprieve in the Senate, leaders of local arts organizations yesterday expressed concern that budget reductions will force a narrowing of the artistic and cultural spectrum available to the public.
With fewer federal dollars available, museum curators increasingly will choose exhibits that are proven crowd-pleasers -- and proven revenue producers -- instead of more obscure, scholarly explorations. They may develop offerings more likely to attract corporate dollars. Still others may be forced to cut back on community services.
"You'll be finding fewer shows that are looking at new areas of culture such as Russian icons or Ethiopian art or the art of women in classical Greece and more like the Gauguin and Sisley exhibits that are guaranteed to draw a crowd," says Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Gallery.
"It's not bad to have crowd-pleasers -- they're great -- but I'd hate to lose the possibility of having the lesser-known shows," he adds.
On Wednesday, the Senate approved a bill that would slash by about 30 percent the budgets for both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The current NEA budget is $172 million; the NEH's is $163 million.
The Senate measure came in the wake of a House bill that would cut arts and humanities funding by 40 percent -- and included plans to eliminate the NEA, the NEH and the smaller Institute for Museum Services within the next two years.
The difference between House and Senate measures will be hashed out by a joint conference committee, which will begin its meetings next month.
But the smaller cuts proposed by the Senate don't necessarily come as a relief to the directors of the programs dependent on the federal grants.
"If there is any possibility that the NEA and NEH won't be eliminated, then I guess this is good news, but it certainly is bad news ultimately in that it's clear that federal funding is going to decline," says Joan Channick, associate managing director of Center Stage.
At Center Stage, where the theater group is in the midst of drawing up a five-year financial plan, managers are seeking "big revenue ideas," or programs that could potentially bring in more money, says Ms. Channick.
Already the theater is grappling with reductions in federal funding.
The theater, which last year received $135,000 from the NEA, was informed that it would receive $115,000 this year. But last week, theater managers were notified that the amount had been reduced to $103,500.
Before curtailing the artistic schedule, theater directors are looking for new sources of funding, or they may cut costs through staff reductions or by building less grand sets, says Ms. Channick.
But she worries that over the long haul, budget cuts could have a chilling effect on the kinds of theater produced nationwide.
"Cutting the number of actors hired might limit the repertoire -- and that's already happening in many theaters. You see a lot of two-character plays with one set. Well, that's fine, but you can't do Shakespeare that way," she says.
"Undoubtedly this reduction in funding will create pressures on us that we're going to try to resist because we don't want to lose our ability to do a broad spectrum of work."
Nancy Brennan, executive director of the Baltimore City Life Museums, says the need for corporate sponsorship could cause directors to choose more marketable exhibits over more scholarly ones.
"The tension that could arise is between scholarly exhibits that federal and public agencies would have funded before vs. those projects that are attractive to donors because they will generate lots and lots of people," she says.
Other members of the cultural community say that the organizations hardest hit will be the smaller ones, which have fewer resources to fall back on. And the loss of these smaller groups would continue the winnowing effect of federal cutbacks upon the arts at large.
"Because the [Institute for Museum Services] and the NEA and the NEH are big, many people have been concerned about what's going to happen on a big scale, but there are those of us down here who are very worried," says Joanne Martin, executive director and founder of the Great Blacks in Wax Museum.
"The smaller you are, the fewer resources, but the big guys are pulling the strings," she adds.
Jim Backas, executive director of the state Council Arts Council, worries that the programs most threatened will be those that are the least grand, but most needed.
The Maryland State Arts Council, which received $608,000 from the NEA last year, now funds more than 200 arts organizations ranging from Hagertown's Maryland Symphony Orchestra to the Ward Museum of duck decoys in Salisbury.
Directors will be forced to "cut those things that don't produce revenue, like senior citizens programs or touring troupes to outlying areas. These are things that cost a lot, but produce little revenue," he explains.
"Any program or artistic director knows that to keep the company alive you reduce those things that bring in the least revenue. This will have the most profound effect on small, developing and middle-sized arts companies in the state that serve the outlying areas. That's where the cuts will be felt the hardest."