How artists get endowment money: the hardest part is the waiting

Filling out applications for grants from a government agency, filing them on time, and then waiting to hear if any money will be coming -- that is the bothersome but absolutely vital activity for the heads of most nonprofit institutions.

What a relief to be notified that one's application has been accepted and approved. Problems are solved -- at least for as long as the grant is good, right?

Wrong. In many cases this is where the real waiting game begins. There are more forms to be filled out and submitted, and then there is the long wait until the check arrives.

Arts organizations and institutions are especially vulnerable to cash shortages, and even the largest museums have found themselves dependent on government grants. The time it takes to receive a grant may make the difference whether an organization and its programs survive.

The National Endowment for the Arts, celebrating its 15th anniversary, has has been given high marks by leaders in the arts. It has been scrupulously careful in its grant awards, with panels and committees providing a system of checks and balances. always cognizant that the arts might be the first area cut back in a budget crunch, the endowment's heads know that any stains on the endowment's integrity could be detrimental.

But the agency has often been criticized for the lenght of time between application approval and receipt of check -- sometimes three or four months.The reasons for this delay may rest with the arts endowment or with the grantee or with both.

One cause for delays, not peculiar just to arts agencies, is the problem of things just getting lost in all the paper work. One endowment program analyst told the director of a New York City arts organization to send its application on her home because "it will never get to me if you send it to my office." This was probably not the first time such a request was made.

Many arts organizations around the country report good results in receiving funds in good time from state arts councils -- generally within three to four weeks after notification of application approval. The major exceptions are California and New York, where the time may be anywhere from one to six months.

In California the major time snag results from the number of signatories of the grant contract, some of whom are not in any way involved in the arts and are not aware of the pressing financial needs. Besides the signatures of the financial officer or director of the organization receiving the grant and the executive director of the California Arts Council, the contract also must have the signature of the director of the state Department of General Services. In addition, the head of the General Services legal department and the head of the state Department of Finance will be part of the signing committee if the amount of the grant is larger than $10,000 or the contract is legally complicated.

Alice Hendrix, contract administrator for the California Arts Council, noted that these numerous channels through which the contract must go greatly slow the funding process, especially if any of the signatories just let the contract languish under a pile of papers, which sometimes happens.

"We try to educate these people about the importance of speeding the process along," she said. "But it depends on who's at these agencies. There are often personnel changes, and we have to educate people all the time."

In New York the delay problem has become so endemic that one organization, the New York Foundation for the Arts, was formed to arrange loans for arts groups while they await funds from the state arts council. The situation has been slowly improving over the past few years. By the end of fiscal 1974, only 10 percent of the arts council's appropriations had been paid out to arts groups and institutions. By the end of fiscal 1976, 69 percent had been paid. Although an improvement, the situation was still seen as intolerable and may have been partly behind Gov. Hugh Carey's firing of the chairwoman of the state arts council, the first time any head of the agency had been dismissed.

In 1976 the average time for a check to be sent out was 154 days, according to Robert Mayer, who became executive director of the New York State Council on the Arts at that time. Reorganization and streamlined procedures cut that time to about 72 days. Mr. Mayer noted, however, that 50 of those days are used waiting for the grants contracts to be funded by the state Division of Treasury. The size of most arts council appropriations is so small, relative to most of the funds the state pays out, that it simply doesn't bother, he said.

With the streamlining of the grants procedure, money has reached arts institutions sooner. However, even this has not eliminated a need for the New York Foundation for the Arts to help tide grantees over the waiting period, and, according to a foundation spokesman, "business is booming."

At the National Endowment for the Arts, staff shortages and a high turnover rate (due to relatively low salaries) have contributed to the stretched-out time. The agency has asked for an additional $1 million in its its budget request for the coming fiscal year for administrative personnel -- more staff and a little better pay.

Mary Ann Tighe, deputy chairwoman for the arts endowment, noted that the number of grant applications has "grown enormously -- and we have no more staff to process them." There aren't the people available to answer questions by applicants or to do follow-up, she explained, and this can lead to delays if there is any information missing on the applications.

The staff requested by the endowment agency includes 25 full-time and 15 part-time people for the heavy load periods. In addition, the agency has requested funds for equipment rental -- to use slide viewers, for example, to look at the submitted work of artists more closely.

The agency has begun computerizing the system to make the funding process more efficient, but in the getting-to-know-you stage of putting the machines into operation there have been some mistakes that have caused delays.

In addition, the federal government's fiscal year was pushed back to Oct. 1, (Congress has been perennially slow in enacting the annual budget and didn't want to leave the nation broke while it haggled). But in much of the rest of the country, fiscal years begin on July 1, and this lag has forced arts institutions to wait for funds from the National Endowment for the Arts.

If that isn't enough, there are occasional scheduling problems between the time applications are received and the time the panel committees (which make the grant recommendations) and National Council on the Arts (which approves the recommendations) meet. More delays.

The result is that the grantee often must take out a bank loan, using the endowment's assurance of future payment as collateral, but in the meantime incurring interest fees. An endowment grant of $10,000 may have cost a grantee several hundred dollars by the time the check arrives.

Fortunately, banks have come to be increasingly willing to lend to arts organizations and institutions based on the firm commitment of funding from a state arts council or federal agency, although current high interest rates have affected this relationship.

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