Leaders calculate impact of cuts

Arts leaders cast wary eyes toward the legislature

March 19, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's major museums and cultural institutions are bracing for what could be a substantial cut in state funding for the arts, one that could range anywhere from 5 percent to 17 percent.

As with everything regarding Maryland's budget this year, the final figure is dependent on what happens with Gov Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposal to legalize slot machines at the state's racetracks and use tax money generated by them as a revenue source. Without the added revenue, Ehrlich has warned, substantial cuts in all budget categories will be necessary.

The governor actually had proposed a modest increase in the budget line for the Maryland Arts Council, which distributes money to the state's arts organizations. For the fiscal year ending July 1, the council received $12.1 million, an 11 percent reduction over the previous year's allocation. Ehrlich's budget proposal included a 1 percent increase in funding, to $12.2 million, for the coming fiscal year.

But so far, recommendations coming out of the Democrat-controlled legislature, where opposition to slots has made that potential revenue source iffy at best, have proven less generous.

Last week, the House Appropriations Committee approved a 5 percent cut in current spending levels, to $11.5 million. The Senate Budget & Taxation Committee is set to meet tomorrow to formulate its own proposals, but indications are it will be looking to trim further than its House counterpart. Monday, the Senate's Education, Business and Administration Subcommittee approved a recommendation that the council's operating budget be cut by 17 percent, to $9.96 million.

"We're disappointed" with the Senate subcommittee's proposal, says Rob Carter, the state's assistant secretary for tourism, film and the arts, "because it hurts every arts organization and every county."

The governor, Carter said, had proposed the modest increase to the arts council's budget as a symbolic gesture. "He realizes how the arts can economically benefit the state. Maryland enjoys arguably the finest quality of life in the country, and it's because of that quality of life that we can attract new businesses to the state and retain them."

Pamela Holt, executive director of Maryland Citizens for the Arts, an advocacy group seeking increased state and federal funding for arts organizations, insisted cuts such as those being considered by the legislature are shortsighted at best. Studies show that arts groups return $2.50 to the state coffers for every $1 spent on them.

"They're a part of the solution, in helping the state rebound economically," she said.

Neither branch of the legislature has adopted a budget yet. Once they do, if their numbers don't jibe (as they almost assuredly won't), a final version will have to be worked out in committee. But officials with the city's arts institutions are bracing for bad news.

"We've already gone through one belt-tightening, last year at this time," says Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum. "That hunk of money translates into real people. It's a constant struggle [to maintain funding], and right now, we're all ... in a position of heightened struggle."

A continuing erosion of public funding for the Walters could lead to a cutback in exhibits and outreach programs, possibly even gallery closings or a reduction in the museum's hours, Vikan says. "The impact of that would be felt, unfortunately, by our users."

A 17 percent reduction in state money to the Walters would cost the museum approximately $200,000. An assistant curator, Vikan said by way of example, earns an annual salary of about $50,000.

Added Michael Ross, managing director of Center Stage, "We have an absolute understanding that budget cuts are going to come." All the city's arts organizations "are prepared," he says, "but all of us are afraid that it will be excessive.

"At 17 percent," he noted, noting the proposal being made to the Senate committee, "it's certainly a deep cut." That would represent about $80,000 less being pumped into Center Stage's coffers, "and that could be two or three employees, or up to seven actors in the course of a season."

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