Culture groups face the music Funding cuts: The state's arts organizations, large and small, brainstorm for ways to maintain services with fewer federal dollars.

January 31, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

Without federal support for the arts, "African Zion" -- the Walters Art Gallery show that gained national attention in 1993 -- might not have happened.

Without federal money, poets sponsored by a Columbia-based nonprofit group called HoCoPoLitSo may be absent from Howard County public schools for the first time in more than two decades.

Without federal help, the Maryland Historical Society may not conduct its summer workshop in which high school teachers learn creative ways to teach the history of Colonial Maryland.

But, federal budget cuts are inevitable -- and with that in mind, about 35 leaders of the Maryland arts community met yesterday in Washington to brainstorm about how best to deal with the situation.

"People might think that because the NEA is still functioning that there is no danger here, but serious damage has been done to the arts groups in this country," Maryland Rep. Ben Cardin said. "There is hope here: We're making progress, but we're still far behind, and we should be fighting for the arts."

Yesterday's Washington gathering, organized by Mr. Cardin, a Democrat from the 3rd District, was to teach members of the Maryland arts community how to lobby Congress and build support for the arts in the future.

Congress and the White House are in agreement on a budget that will slash money for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) -- to $99 million from 1995's $167 million. Funds for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) will drop to $110 million from $172 million.

In Maryland, the state arts council, which operates as a statewide clearinghouse for arts organizations, received $598,000 from the NEA last year, and individual arts groups received about another $1.5 million.

Next year, the amount of federal money that the arts council receives could be reduced by as much as 31 percent -- or around $185,000, estimates Jim Backas, executive director. (There is no way to figure out how much less the individual arts groups would receive.)

Many organizations are already making adjustments. From the largest big-city art museum to the smallest county chamber music ensemble, nearly every arts group is changing its fund-raising strategy, broadening the range of its events to attract larger audiences -- and in some cases jettisoning programs.

At Candlelight Concerts, a 23-year-old Columbia group that traditionally has focused on 18th- and 19th-century chamber music, jazz recently has been added to its lineup. The idea is to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, said its director, Bonita Bush.

Though the music group earns half its budget from ticket sales -- an impressive feat in the arts world -- it is also stepping up its search for corporate dollars. But many companies are saying they are tapped out, she said.

At least one Columbia company that in the past contributed money to Candlelight Concerts has announced a new policy: In an increasingly needy society, it will donate only to human service or health groups.

"Unfortunately, we think we are a human service organization," said Ms. Bush.

At the Howard County Poetry and Literary Society, which has an annual budget of about $75,000, the loss of $10,000 in NEA funding is threatening poetry programs aimed at high school students.

"We are going to have to do a great deal less because we are going to have to spend our time creating new funding to finance old, existing programs," said Ellen Conroy Kennedy, founder of the 22-year-old HoCoPoLitSo. The group is looking for corporations willing to contribute to a fledgling endowment. "Frankly, I'm feeling pretty discouraged," she added.

Some larger organizations, such as the Walters Art Gallery, Center Stage and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with annual budgets in the millions, are less dependent on federal money than small groups with few resources. But they, too, are making adjustments.

At the Maryland Historical Society, federal dollars represent less than 10 percent of the $2.3 million budget, said Dennis Fiori, executive director. Nonetheless, loss of those funds could force him and other administrators to make difficult choices -- and possibly to drop worthy programs.

For example, the historical society probably will not sponsor a summer history program for high school teachers unless the project is awarded a federal grant. "We can obviously juggle our budget and get the money from somewhere else, but in the end, you have to set priorities and that means that something has to go by the wayside," he said.

Last fall, Baltimore's Center Stage began offering "sponsorships" individual productions to corporations that donated at least $25,000 to the theater. For example, NationsBank and accounting firm Ernst & Young currently are sponsoring "The Taming of the Shrew."

"We couldn't just try to do more in every area of our fund-raising. We needed some ideas that were new," said Cecilia Meisner, associate director of development at Center Stage.

Despite the determination of arts groups to stay alive, competition may be too great for some, said Gary Vikan, director of the Walters.

"In the end you can listen to 45 Gary Vikans all say that they are going to work harder and continue to do what they've been doing: mounting exhibitions, doing conservation and so on," he said. "If you are realistic you know that all 45 aren't going to succeed. There's going to be a brutal Darwinism in the art world."

"But no museum director that has his wits together and his spurs on is going to let that happen. We are going to have to work harder to get what we need to do what we need to do."

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