Art venues find funding, and visitors, hard to come by

Artists always seem to thrive during hard times, and this year has been no exception. The events of Sept. 11 are producing a rich mixture of songs, paintings, and plays that look at life in a new light.

But at the same time, arts venues across the country are feeling a 9/11 pinch – as a downturn in tourism affects attendance. Worse, a recession and a bear market in stocks have affected private endowment funds and state budgets – the very lifeblood of many nonprofit arts institutions.

The most severe cut came in Massachusetts this summer when Gov. Jane Swift cut the annual state arts budget by 62 percent, from $19.1 million to $7.29 million.

Other states are following suit: Connecticut cut its arts budget by 10 percent, New York by 5 percent, and California is considering a cut of about 50 percent. Consequently, some arts institutions are reducing their hours, cutting staff, and changing plans.

All of this comes at a time when some say that cities' cultural worth is at a premium.

"Cities that are more likely to grow economically are those that have strong arts and cultural communities," says Richard Florida, a professor of regional economic development at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "But too many are falling all over themselves to build another stadium, thinking brick and mortar will lure big companies."

Indeed, Americans for the Arts recently released a study that claims that the financial return on government's investment in the arts generates a combined $134 billion in economic activity each year. "Government support for the arts is not a handout. It is a financially wise investment in local economies throughout the nation," wrote Robert Lynch, president of the organization.

But states facing budget deficits say the arts are not being singled out; most government-funded programs are facing cutbacks. But, because so much of the industry is nonprofit, tough economic times also mean dwindling endowments and donations.

New York has been especially hard hit. Museums report that staff openings are going unfilled, visiting hours have been cut, and major exhibitions are being postponed. And, because of concern over flying since Sept. 11, museums such as the Guggenheim, the Museum of Natural History, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have seen a 20 percent drop in visitors over last year.

Reduced accessibility to the arts troubles those who see them as an important means for healing since Sept. 11. "People are trying to find a way to connect with their communities again, and there is no better way to do that than the arts," says Kimber Craine, communications manager for the National Assembly for State Arts Agencies in Washington.

Indeed, while many cities are seeing drops in visitors, a few report renewed interest.

Take the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, which operates 35 historic properties in five states. Visitation is up 48 percent over last year, but last October the organization was forced to lay off 16 employees, delay maintenance projects, and cut $1 million from the budget.

"Visitors are saying how important it is to find a sense of place at a time like this, to support an institution that is identifiable with American values," says Jane Nylander, the organization's president. "And we're struggling to provide it."

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