On Dance Stages, Funding Cast a Lengthening Shadow
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 28, 2003; Page N04
It is well known that the past few years of economic woes and post-Sept. 11 blues have hit the arts hard. Ticket sales, private giving, foundation grants, corporate donations -- these sources of funds have all shriveled, even in the face of a brightening economy.
But especially for those arts organizations that live on the margins, as so many dance companies do, here's another lump of coal in this year's stocking: Cutbacks in state funding are headed their way.
Dance companies may not feel the effects of the states' budget crises right away. Audience members may not notice a difference for six months or a year. But according to some observers, the damage is already done.
California's budgetary disaster got national attention this fall during Arnold Schwarzenegger's high-profile run for governor. There, the formerly $18 million arts budget has been hacked to less than $2 million. But though it presents the most dramatic example in terms of dollars, that state is hardly alone. State revenues across the country have fallen, and many state arts agencies have been left bleeding. According to the umbrella group for state arts agencies, Missouri eliminated its arts appropriations altogether and is dipping into a cultural trust fund. Florida and Colorado cut their arts budgets by nearly 80 percent. Michigan cut its arts spending in half. Maryland, one of the more fortunate states, took a hit of less than 10 percent.
How important are all these tabulations to the world of dance? "More dance organizations received some funding from state arts agencies than from any other government source," says John Munger, director of information services for Dance USA, a service organization for nonprofit dance companies. "The source of government money that most arts organizations can see some likelihood of getting is state funding."
According to Munger, nearly all of the medium-to-large ballet and modern dance companies that have filed budgetary reports with him for this year received state funding. Far fewer received federal money. And the dollar amounts of the state awards to dance companies dwarf those of federal funds, he says.
For example, the average state award to the biggest ballet companies (with budgets of more than $6 million) was $127,000. The average federal grant to these groups was less than half that amount.
To take one example: In 2001, the San Francisco Ballet took in $155,000 from the state of California. Last year, that dropped to $47,000. This year, says development director Thomas W. Flynn, the company did not receive a dime. With a budget of $30 million, losing the state money does not mean the end of the company. But it does mean working extra hard to make up the funds elsewhere, from already-stressed private sources. The company also laid off staff in the spring of 2002.
On the local front: Last year Lucy Bowen McCauley, whose eight-year-old Bowen McCauley Dance company is based in Arlington, applied for a $5,000 choreography grant from the Virginia Commission for the Arts. Her application was returned unopened, along with a note stating that there was no money for the grant. And for good reason: Grappling with a $6 billion budget deficit for 2002-04, Gov. Mark Warner cut the arts commission's budget by 45 percent.
This year, with some reshuffling of funds, "even though we've been cut so drastically, we were able to offer fellowships in two disciplines" -- choreography and fiction writing -- out of the customary 11, says Peggy Baggett, executive director for the Virginia Commission for the Arts.
But this hasn't come in time to help Bowen McCauley, at least not with her current season. To deal with diminished funds, she has cut back on the number of performances (there will be no show at Dance Place next month, unlike last January). At her Kennedy Center concert this fall, she eliminated any kind of set design and supplemented live music with tapes.
Audiences can expect to see more bare spaces, to hear more taped music, and to make choices among fewer productions in the new year and beyond. The situation is going to get worse before it gets better, said Jonathan Katz, director of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.
"The message to the dance community is: This is going to be lean a little longer than it looks like," says Katz. "They'll have to plan very cautiously with at least an 18-month horizon."
All of which worries Munger. "You can't starve something to death, then expect it to be fabulous," he says.
He goes so far as to say that the cutbacks in government funding amount to a national policy on the arts. A policy of non-engagement.
"Let's face it: There is a culture-war-flavored debate in this country over whether there should actually be government support for the arts," says Munger. "Government funding is not the largest component of income for dance companies. But when you have government support for the arts, that's a statement about where the arts fits in your culture, in your world, in your society."
Artists, being the most vulnerable to the implications of that conclusion, are loath to accept it.
"Even in the toughest times, people need the arts," says Bowen McCauley. "You can't just toss them aside."
But as state funding goes missing in action and arts organizations have one less revenue source, that is becoming a frighteningly real possibility.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company