Council Bars Duncan From Funding Arts

Funding the Music Center at Strathmore and other facilities was a priority for County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.
Funding the Music Center at Strathmore and other facilities was a priority for County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Montgomery County Council voted yesterday to strip County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) of his power to distribute millions of dollars in grants to arts organizations in the fiscal 2006 budget, saying the process has become too entangled in politics.

The County Council designated the county's Arts and Humanities Council, a private, nonprofit organization, to allocate arts grants for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Duncan, who is preparing to seek the 2006 Democratic nomination for governor, proposed a fivefold increase in the county's arts budget over the past two years, according to County Council analysts. He has made funding for arts facilities, such as the $100 million Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, one of his top priorities.

But some community leaders said they are concerned that the arts grant money is not being evenly distributed.

"Montgomery County has been a leader in bricks and mortar, but we have to make sure we don't forget the little guys," said Jon Palmer Claridge, chairman of the arts and humanities group.

When he submitted his budget in March, Duncan proposed $6.9 million for arts organizations. His request included $1.3 million for the American Film Institute, $500,000 each for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra -- which is using Strathmore as its second home -- the Olney Theatre Center for the Arts, the Round House Theatre in Silver Spring and Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo. He also sought $450,000 for Imagination Stage in Bethesda and $400,000 for the National Philharmonic, which has events at Strathmore.

While Duncan has broadened Montgomery's commitment to the arts, he also has raised thousands in campaign donations from individuals who work for or sit on the boards of organizations receiving county funds.

A review of campaign finance reports shows that Duncan's campaign received at least $12,000 late last year from members of the Baltimore symphony's executive board and board of trustees.

Trustees or board members of Imagination Stage have donated at least $6,000 to Duncan in recent years. Jean Picker Firstenberg, the Los Angeles-based chief executive of the American Film Institute, which moved into a new home in downtown Silver Spring as a result of a $20 million county investment, contributed $1,000 to Duncan in November. Gene Counihan, president of the Olney Theatre, gave Duncan $450 in the past two years.

"I think he sees a political benefit of cultivating them, and he has certainly done so with his budget proposals," said council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg). "I think he views his relationship with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as his entry into parts of Baltimore."

Duncan spokesman David Weaver said it is Montgomery residents who benefit, not the county executive.

"We make no apologies for our strong support for the arts, humanities and arts education," Weaver said. "We are a better community for it. We are a richer community for it."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company