Washington Arts Groups Say NEA Stimulus Grants Helping to Save Jobs

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 9, 2009

Jessica Neely, the executive director of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, breathed a deep sigh of relief this week when she learned the National Endowment for the Arts had given her organization $50,000 in economic stimulus funds.

A reading program for 11th- and 12th-graders in the District's public and charter schools had been in jeopardy. "This saves our ability to maintain our programming at the levels we have had in a really tight fundraising climate," Neely said. The rescue grant goes to the program coordinator's salary and some program costs, she said.

Over at GALA Hispanic Theatre, the city's largest Latino performing arts group, the federal grant of $50,000 came just in time. "Now we are able to continue to employ our technical director and hire an additional technical director who speaks Spanish," said Rebecca Medrano, the company's executive director. The theater does original programming in Spanish and works frequently with companies from Spain, so the two jobs were essential to the company's vitality and mission, she said.

Even though arriving in small dollops, money from the behemoth economic rescue program is making a difference for local arts groups. The awards are $25,000 or $50,000. Arena Stage is using its $50,000 to reinstate two positions. The National Building Museum is using its grant of the same amount to retain a job.

In February the NEA received $50 million from the administration's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to preserve jobs in the arts. Since then the NEA gave 40 percent of the funding to state and regional arts agencies. This week the agency announced the recipients of the competitive round for nonprofit groups, including 19 Washington-based groups. The total outlay is $900,000 for the local qualifiers.

Across the country, arts groups have been struggling in this recession. Many were hit by shrinking investment endowments and diminished giving by individuals, corporations and foundations. Many cut their budgets, shortened their performing seasons and reduced staff. Dorothy Kosinski, the director of the Phillips Collection, which also received $50,000, said the money is more than welcome at a time of economic stress but also gives an imprimatur to the arts community. The grants, she said, show the necessity of the arts as "part of our essential national infrastructure. The money allows us in a small but important way to be true to our core mission."

The Shakespeare Theatre Company, one of the country's most successful, cut $1 million of its $18.9 million budget last year, including five administrative jobs, but this week announced company-wide furloughs. The company received $50,000 in stimulus funds. "While this does not change our plans for the staff to take a one-week furlough, the NEA grant allows us to preserve an important revenue-generating position that will enable the Shakespeare Theatre Company to keep our world-class artists and artisans employed," said Stacy Shaw, the company's marketing and communications director.

Since the arts industry is a relatively small sector, but a highly visible one, the domino effect of reduced income was immediate. Joseph Horowitz, the artistic director of the Post-Classical Ensemble, said the company was really hurt when its presenters -- the organizations that sponsor concerts and do marketing and ticketing -- cut their budgets.

"They are hurting. They are not able to present us as they are accustomed to doing. That is the most dramatic impact of the recession for us," Horowitz said. The $50,000 from the NEA will be applied to salaries. "The orchestra is run by four people and we are minimally reimbursed. This will help keep us intact."

Nina Ozlu Tunceli, chief counsel of government and public affairs for the Americans for the Arts, said the $50,000 the organization received would support two positions. ARCH Development, a nonprofit group that works to revitalize the Anacostia neighborhood through the arts, is using its $50,000 to support two existing salaries, said a spokeswoman.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company