NORTHAMPTON, MASS. — WHY is state funding to the arts a source of concern and worry to arts advocates? The reason is not that they don't appreciate the money. Rather, they are seeing legislators increasingly dictate how the state arts agency's budget is to be spent through a process known as ``line iteming.'' ``I think what we're seeing more and more of is state arts funding becoming a political football,'' says Jeffrey Love, research director at the Washington-based National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.
He notes that state legislators are using the line item to circumvent the normal arts agency funding processes.
``A pushy organization can get money through the representative when it might not get it applying to the arts agency.''
Arts agencies have exacting standards for their many applicants, including a peer review panel that examines, among other things, artistic excellence, administrative competence, fiscal management, geographical accessibility to the public, and whether or not an organization caters to an ethnically and culturally diverse audience.
``I know how we determine worthiness for applicants,'' says Jeffrey Kesper, executive director of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. ``I haven't a clue how the state legislature determines it other than someone in their districts needing money.''
The New Jersey State Council on the Arts, in the past two years, has had line items in its budget for activities that have only a marginal relationship to the arts at best, including a Bicycle Hall of Fame ($100,000) and a marathon ($800,000).
``This is more of a nuisance than a problem,'' Mr. Kesper says, noting that the two line items were accompanied by additional money to the arts council to pay for them. ``My real worry is that some day the state legislature may decide that it wants to give money to someone and just take it out of our budget. The whole thing can lead to the arts being funded on the basis of political considerations.''
Such a scenario has begun to loom larger for state arts agencies in the wake of the vote last week by the US Senate to bar the National Endowment for the Arts from supporting ``obscene or indecent'' artwork and to cut off federal funds to two art groups that had supported exhibitions by two provocative photographers.
At present, 18 states and territories have line items for a portion of the money allocated to the arts through the arts agency (Alaska, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Guam, Hawaii, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wisconsin), double the number in 1978. Since 1978, the percentage of line items comprising the arts budgets has also doubled, from 6 percent to 12 percent, with the total amount of money line-itemed jumping tenfold, from $3.85 million to $38.9 million.
In addition, many other state legislatures also ``earmark'' funds appropriated to the arts agencies. New York State, for example, requires that its Council on the Arts fund all areas of the state on a 75 cents per capita basis and in Massachusetts the Council on the Arts and Humanities is directed each year to spend no less than certain specified amounts for various theaters, historical museums, or something else that legislators favor.
``Part of it is that the legislators don't fully trust the arts agencies to put money where they think it ought to go,'' says Michael Bailey, deputy director of the Maryland Arts Council, which has a five-year, $10 million funding line item for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra imposed on it by the state legislature. ``Part of it is also the desperate need for financial help - more help than we have the money to provide - that many arts organizations, such as the Baltimore Symphony, require.''
He added that he doesn't care for legislative initiatives in this area, as ``it weakens our position as an arts council, if legislators and groups think that they can just go over our heads to get money. But it's not really beneficial for the arts organization either. If you orient your fund raising toward the legislature, you find that the governor changes, legislators come and go. The arts council has a much more stable track record.''