Cuts leave VSA arts programs for the disabled in limbo

Supporters of VSA, the nation’s leading arts education organization for the disabled, are blaming a shortsighted Congress and indifferent Kennedy Center officials for extensive budget and staff cuts imposed on VSA this summer.

In mid-July, the Kennedy Center reduced VSA’s Washington-based office from 35 staff members to seven. And VSA’s federal funding, which was $9 million in last year’s budget, will probably be a third of that in the upcoming fiscal year.

“The Kennedy Center has essentially signed the death warrant for VSA,” said Scott Stoner, who served as VSA’s vice president for education services until he was laid off along with most of his colleagues July 15. “It will no longer be a leading international arts organization, and they understand that.”

Officials at the Kennedy Center, which runs the program founded by Jean Kennedy Smith, sister of President John F. Kennedy, said they support VSA (formerly known as Very Special Arts) but have had to adjust to severe cuts to arts and education programs made by Congress in its fiscal year 2011 budget. The cuts to the Kennedy Center’s education programs are just a small part of the approximately $1.2 billion that Congress slashed from its allocation to the Education Department. Now, many arts and education organizations are facing the reality of fewer federal resources and a Congress intent on significantly reducing further government spending.

“Our goal is to build back the size of VSA’s current activity as we find the resources to do so,” Michael M. Kaiser, the Kennedy Center’s president, said in an interview this week. “When half the funding disappears from one day to the next, it does take some time to build that back.”

Kaiser rejected the suggestion, made by some former VSA employees and members of affiliated organizations, that the center could have done more to protect VSA or that it was abandoning the organization’s 35-year mission to use arts as an education tool for people with physical or mental handicaps.

He said the Kennedy Center cut VSA’s staff to concentrate funds on programs rather than employees, and this was being achieved by incorporating VSA activities into the Kennedy Center’s own education department.

“A lot of money has been taken out of overhead,” Kaiser said.“We want to maintain the core programming of VSA and then build that back up over time. It’s obviously a very painful situation for everyone, and we have to make the best of it.”

VSA, founded in the mid-1970s, provides training and education programs that reach some 276,000 students in 43 states and 52 countries. It uses arts to help disabled students succeed in a variety of subjects and be incorporated into mainstream classes. It has outreach programs, art projects, exhibits and productions that VSA estimates reached 7.6 million participants and audience members last year.

In a June memo obtained by The Washington Post, Darrell M. Ayers, the Kennedy Center’s vice president for education, told VSA affiliates to expect “a drastic reduction” in programs, funding and staff. He said grants to affiliated VSA groups at the state level would be reduced, and many VSA programs would be merged into Kennedy Center programs.

Stoner said he urged Kennedy Center officials to consider making up some of the lost federal funds by applying for grants from other federal programs, such as those for special education or assistance for the disabled.

“The only response was a ‘thank you for your input’ e-mail,” he said. “Nothing else.”

VSA affiliate members expected the recent budget hit but did not anticipate it would be as severe as it was. Affiliates that once received $80,000 grants through the program will now receive no more than $25,000. A number of affiliates could receive nothing.

While those grant amounts are relatively small, especially in an era of congressional budget cuts in the trillions of dollars, officials of state affiliates said they were key to their success. For every federal dollar received, the affiliates attract about $7 in matching funds.

“It’s a very big blow,” said Judith Chalmer, executive director of VSA Vermont and chair of the VSA’s national affiliate council. “We’re enormously sad about the loss of resources on the national level.”

Chalmer declined to characterize the reaction of the VSA affiliates to the Kennedy Center’s cuts, but, she said, “The council is working in good faith and cordially with the Kennedy Center.”

Other critics were less diplomatic, alleging that the Kennedy Center has effectively abandoned the program and its hundreds of state, local and international affiliates.

They argued that merging the programs with Kennedy Center programs will dilute the VSA’s role, diminish its leadership and probably lead to its dissolution. They also said the Kennedy Center has the means to absorb the federal cuts and to continue funding the VSA at a level that would help it survive and continue its work until additional funding sources are available.

For affiliate members, the cuts have created a stressful uncertainty.

“I feel moderately confident that we’ll get through the year, but I know we’ll be doing much less,” said Craig J. Dunn, executive director of VSA Minnesota, who has worked for VSA for more than 20 years. “Replacing this money is a big task.”

Dunn predicted that many VSA affiliates will not survive without the federal funding. “I’m guessing we’re going to lose about a fifth of the affiliates in the next couple of years,” he said.

Arts community leaders said the lost federal money would have a lasting impact, and the congressional cuts were short-sighted.

“If a death knell [for VSA] is delivered, you need to look at Congress, because that is where the cut is made,” said Robert L. Lynch, president and chief executive of Americans for the Arts, one of the country’s leading arts advocacy organizations. “Many in Congress probably thought this was an easy cut to make, but it’s not good policy and it’s not good for America.”

 
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