If arts lose state funds, state loses a lot more

March 09, 1997|By Glenn McNatt

THE REPUBLICAN caucus of the Maryland General Assembly has proposed cutting state funding for the arts nearly in half for 1997. If enacted, the cuts would devastate local arts groups, forcing them to cancel performances, slash outreach programs, lower artistic standards and double or even triple ticket prices.

The total savings from such a wholesale gutting of the arts would amount to about $3 million, or less than one-twentieth of 1 percent of the overall state budget. By such means does the GOP promise to bring economic growth and prosperity to Maryland.

If you find such a policy penny-wise and pound-foolish, you are not alone. Many veteran Republican legislators share that view. But the cuts are being driven by 1994's crop of freshman GOP radicals, who seem impelled less by any coherent ideology than by sheer delight in wrecking things.

When one considers ticket sales, hotel stays and all the other spending associated with the arts, the overall impact on Maryland's economy is about $600 million a year (a figure comparable to that of the state's vaunted horse-racing industry). If reducing arts funding by half led to a proportionate reduction in the impact of the arts on the state's economy, Marylanders would pay for the cut a hundredfold in the form of lost jobs and tax revenues.

In practical terms, the loss would likely be even greater. That's because almost no arts group depends entirely on state funding. Instead, groups use state dollars to leverage private donations and foundation grants, raising about $12 for every dollar of government funding. A 50 percent reduction in state funds would cripple the ability of arts groups to raise money from all other sources.

The effects would be felt almost immediately. The first thing to go would be program schedules across the state. There simply would be fewer plays, concerts and museum exhibitions.

Groups large and small would feel the pinch, from the Walters Art Gallery and Center Stage in Baltimore to the Columbia Festival of the Arts, the Ward Museum in Salisbury, the Olney Theater in Montgomery County and the Cumberland Summer Theater in Western Maryland.

Inevitably, artistic standards would fall. Large organizations like the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Walters could no longer afford top-flight performers like Yo-Yo Ma or exhibits like the fabulous "Treasures from Ancient China."

Smaller groups like the struggling but excellent Everyman Theater or the Fells Point Creative Alliance could no longer hold on to trained professional administrators and staff members whose heroic efforts often make the difference between success and failure.

Moreover, the community outreach programs and audience diversification efforts that have been so successful in bringing // the arts to schoolchildren, senior citizens, the disabled, young people and minorities would grind to a halt.

Such programs are expensive and produce virtually no revenues on their own. Yet they are an essential component of any effort to make the arts accessible to previously underserved or neglected audiences.

Meanwhile, arts groups would be forced to drastically increase ticket prices to cover their losses. Because ticket sales typically cover only a third to half of operating costs, prices would have to double or triple.

A glimpse of such a future can be seen in the difference between the opera companies in Baltimore and Washington. The lowest-priced seat in Washington, which gets no money from the strapped District government and has no recourse to state funding, is $50. In Baltimore, by contrast, the modest state grant to the opera enables it to sell tickets for as little as $19. Do we really want to emulate the District's public neglect of its arts institutions?

In the last generation, public support has made possible an unprecedented democratization of the arts. Across Maryland and the nation there is hardly a city, town or community that has not been touched by this cultural outpouring and benefited from it. Public funding of the arts has been, for the most part, one of this country's success stories.

Critics of public funding like to argue that government has no business subsidizing art or artists, especially when they offend or challenge some segment of the population whose tax dollars support it.

It's easy to point to a Robert Mapplethorpe or an Andres Serrano as people whose work doesn't deserve the imprimatur of official sanction implied by public funding. But such examples almost always are red herrings designed to mislead rather than enlighten.

The fact is, the bulk of public funds for the arts goes to support programs and policies of which the majority of citizens heartily approve -- to regional theater productions and kids' concerts, to summer arts festivals and to programs for senior citizens and the disabled.

That's why the freshman GOP radicals probably won't get very far this year. They are running around trying to convince everybody that public arts funding threatens the state's economic well-being. But this is no taxpayer rip-off. If anything, it's actually a great deal -- and it comes at what is, relatively, a peanuts price tag.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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