Washington arts groups anxious over federal funding cuts

April 18, 2011

A number of Washington arts organizations are reeling because Congress cut the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs program by $7 million from $9.5 million in the last agreement for fiscal 2011.

The NCACA grants local groups unrestricted funding in place of state appropriations. The program was started in 1985 to fill that gap since the District is not a state.

“What is particularly cruel is that most arts organizations live in states, which give the groups money. We don’t have the same infrastructure, we don’t have the rights, we don’t have the recourse,” said Dorothy M. Kosinski, the director of the Phillips Collection. The Phillips, one of 24 recipients in 2010, received $423, 801, or 3.5 percent of its operating budget.

Noting the fragile economy of most arts group and the city itself, Morey B. Epstein, executive director of institutional development at Studio Theatre, said “his blood pressure was boiling. For the city as a whole, it is a terrible shock.” Studio received $343,111 in fiscal 2010, or 6.3 percent of its budget. “The benefits of this program are so visible, and dance, theaters and museums have thrived. It helped develop a number of organizations, not just a few.”

The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which administers the program, hasn’t received confirmation of the exact amount it will be able to distribute. “It will be a substantial cut, depending on the size of the organization. It will hit some harder than others,” said Thomas Luebke, the commission’s secretary.

The news of the federal reductions are tougher than usual, officials said, because they had suffered a devastating decrease in funding during the recession. They had instituted belt-tightening in every department during that slowdown and are now forced to scramble as they head into the last months of the fiscal year. “This hardly gives anyone time to react,” said Jeffrey Herrmann, managing director of Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company. “All of us had braced ourselves when the political climate changed, but we didn’t expect a tornado. We are lucky the program survived.”

Debra L. Kraft, executive director of the Choral Arts Society of Washington, points out the multiple obstacles her group has faced. “We had six-figure gifts from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and that is gone. Those were very good for leveraging other corporations and individuals. The money from the National Capital fund was a sign that we were doing good business and was also a leverage,” Kraft said. Now she’s considering cutting her group’s education programs.

Even before knowing the exact amount of their reduction, large and small organizations have been doing some quick arithmetic.

“We are estimating that the loss will impact 20 percent of our budget. Last year, we received $314,000 and now we estimate it will be $80,000. I actually don’t know what we will do,” said Kraft.

Woolly Mammoth received $318,000 in 2010, 9.2 percent of its operating budget. The NCACA loss, theater officials estimated, would be $200,000. In a letter to its supporters, Woolly said it was examining all expense reductions, even a week-long staff furlough. The company is considering bringing back “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which closed Sunday, and bringing in more rentals to the building. The theater appealed for $75,000 from individuals. “Everything has got to be on the table,” said Herrmann.

In 2010, the Kennedy Center received $650,000, the National Symphony Orchestra $624,284 and the Washington National Opera $650,000. GALA Hispanic Theatre had a $296,384 grant, 18.6 percent of its budget. Arena Stage had a $430,000 grant, 3.4 percent of its income.

The federal grant was so essential that the Washington Ballet is facing a deficit after it learned it had not qualified this year for the program. It will end the 2011 fiscal year with a $250,000 shortfall, the exact amount of the NCACA grant in 2010. “We are already cutting things left and right,” said Alyssa Porambo, public relations manager for the company. “My best advice is not to rely on that kind of funding.”

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