State Arts Councils Brace for Cuts in '92

AFTER three years of systematic cutbacks in funding for the arts, Bay State museum directors, theater companies, and cultural groups are angry, as well as weary, over the outlook for 1992: a 72 percent reduction in the budget of the state arts council. Officials at the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC), an agency already reduced 56 percent since 1988, say the cuts would effectively destroy it, forcing serious reductions and outright elimination of arts organizations, many of which cater to schools where no arts activities are normally provided.

The cuts, recommended last month by Gov. William Weld, echo substantial trims proposed for arts agencies in other states, mostly in the East.

"We really won't be much of a force," says Mary Anne Piacentini, director of the council, which is slated to have its budget reduced from $12.6 to $3.5 million.

"At this point people are pretty beaten down. Morale in the [arts] community is very low," adds Elaine Laughlin, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Cultural Alliance, an independent, arts advocacy group.

New York State, considered with Massachusetts to be among the nation's leaders in per-capita arts spending, has plans to chop its arts agency in half in 1992, reducing appropriations from $51.3 million to $26 million. Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio are also facing possible 20 to 75 percent reductions in their arts budgets for next year. The New Jersey arts council took a 42 percent cut this year.

The decreases are not part of a national trend, but reflect regional economic downturns, says Jeffrey Love, director of research of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies in Washington, D.C. "East Coast state economies are suffering," Mr. Love says. Some Western states such as Idaho, Utah, and Nevada dramatically raised their arts budgets this year, he says.

Two years ago the assembly conducted a study showing that from 1969 to 1989, arts appropriations across the country increased 20 percent each year (or 13 percent when adjusted for inflation).

But after years of growth, Love foresees an aggregate downturn of about 10 percent for 1992 in state funding for the arts.

"If the recession bottoms out, the appropriations will continue to climb again," Love says.

Arts groups here have already been affected by previous state cuts, even as corporate and individual donations have decreased. In a 1990 study of its 240 member organizations, the Massachusetts Cultural Alliance reported that 34 percent of the responding groups said they had reduced their operating hours; 40 percent said they had found it necessary to cut programs geared to the disadvantaged; and 13 percent seriously doubted their ability to survive in the future.

"People find this a very scary time - a time for major changes," says Deborah Wolf, artistic director of the 24-year-old Concert Dance Company of Boston, a contemporary dance troupe that will fold this summer because of a lack of state and private funding.

What is disturbing about the 1992 cuts in Massachusetts, says Ms. Piacentini, is that they are disproportionate. The council was expecting a 10 to 15 percent, not a 72 percent drop, she says.

"Everyone understands this is a crisis," Piacentini says, but "the question is how deep is the cut, and how much can you retain of your programming, so that when things do get better, you can grow again?"

The Weld administration has trimmed the council's budget more than other state agencies, because it considers arts programming "less essential," says Virginia Buckingham, press spokeswoman. If that alarms people, "would they rather see heavier cuts in human services, to the elderly, to education, to public safety?" With a projected 1992 state deficit of $1.8 billion, "there are basic obligations we have to meet first," Ms. Buckingham states.

According to Buckingham, Weld says he wants to restrict the council's $3.5 million budget to administrative costs and reduced-admission programs that enable underprivileged schoolchildren to visit major cultural institutions.

But council officials say limiting the use of their funds will make the impact of the cuts even worse, since the council distributes funds to individual artists, local arts councils, large and small cultural institutions, and in-school programs. These would be scrapped under the proposed restrictions.

"A lot of theater companies that did programming for kids have already folded," says Susan Gassett, co-artistic director of City Stage Company, a touring theater group that produces interactive drama for at-risk teens and children. In one urban elementary school, City Stage is helping youngsters put on operettas.

"They have nothing else," says Ms. Gassett. "If we weren't there, they wouldn't have any performing or visual arts."

City Stage received $12,000 this year from the state council. Next year, that could be gone. If that happens, "we'll have to go where everyone else goes - to local businesses and corporations," says Gassett. "Once again every one will be competing for that shrinking amount of money."

Simply giving children "a ticket in the door" to a cultural institution, as Weld suggests, is not the best way to expose them to art, says Wendy Baring-Gould, director of the Cultural Education Collaborative. "If a child goes to a performance where they're hearing Chopin performed, and they have no experience in making music themselves at home or at school, it's going to be completely alienating."

The collaborative is subcontracted by the MCC to support school artist-in-residency programs and long-term partnerships between schools, universities, and arts groups. Through the collaborative, playwrights, poets, musicians, and dancers give disadvantaged kids hands-on experience in the arts.

Already, the collaborative has seen its level of state funding drop to less than a third of what it was in 1989 and the number of participating schools drop from 469 to 104.

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