After Cutbacks, Bay State Arts Funding Is Iffy Business

ARTS groups in Massachusetts may have stopped reeling from the budget battles that raged this year on Beacon Hill, but they can't afford to think their worries are over. This fall, as dance ensembles, theater companies, and museums across the state are preparing their 1991 budgets, they should be ``more wary'' about looking to the state for funding, says Chris Akeley, director of public affairs and development for the Massachusetts Cultural Alliance. The financial squeeze, he says, is likely to continue.

``We still have a lot of work to do,'' says Mr. Akeley, referring to the lobbying needed to assure the somewhat precarious existence of the state's Council on the Arts and Humanities, a major financial source for many cultural organizations. Last spring, when the government proposed to eliminate the Council, the Cultural Alliance spearheaded mass protests to retain funding. The Council was saved, although in the end the amount of money for grants was effectively cut in half.

``For a long time, the cultural community had enjoyed preferred status,'' says Akeley. ``Folks were lulled by that. But the lullaby ended last spring.''

What happened in Massachusetts is not yet a national problem, says Jeffrey Love, director of research for the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. ``In the last five years, state arts funding has generally held steady, with some exceptions, mostly in the South, he says. Final figures aren't in, though, for fiscal 1990.

The Massachusetts Cultural Alliance, a 20-year-old networking and advocacy group, will continue to update its 240 member groups on budget matters and to further strengthen the cultural community. Last month, for instance, the Alliance joined forces with the Wang Center for the Performing Arts and classical radio station WCRB in sponsoring ``Artsmart,'' a free-to-the-public fair in which over 100 cultural groups set up informational booths.

THE multilevel Wang Center lobby was abuzz with artistic life, families with curious children, and mini-performances.

``There is some lack of public understanding,'' said Nancy Finkelstein, executive director of the Alliance, during the festival. More people should know ``the state makes money on arts groups,'' she said, noting how tourist dollars pour in when there's a healthy cultural life. She also said that businesses consider ``the quality-of-life issue'' when deciding whether to move into the state.

``We've been through a difficult year,'' said Corey Cronin, public relations director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, seated behind a booth. But he said the festival mood was definitely upbeat. ``It proves we're all still alive and well ... and pulling together.''

The government cutbacks ``drastically affected some of our programs,'' said Tom Ralston, executive director of City Stage Company, which performed a crowd-pleasing playlet about Tom Thumb at the festival. Though City Stage receives money from various sources, he said, the state's Council on the Arts and Humanities ``allows us to serve needy people below cost.'' Without those funds, that form of outreach suffers, Mr. Ralston added.

At the booth of the Boston Philharmonic, assistant manager Joseph Horning said state funding for the 10-year-old orchestra is 38 percent less than last year's level. ``That's not going to break our backs,'' he said, since the Philharmonic has strong corporate support. But the cutbacks ``make the climate for the arts that much more difficult.''

Fortunately, added Horning, the Artsmart festival helped unify the diverse groups and ``increased the morale of the arts community.''

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