Stimulus money offers slim lifeline to local groups

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 6, 2009

At the beginning of the year, Washington's Joy of Motion Dance Center was experiencing some of the financial pain that was crippling many of its fellow arts groups. It had seen a 25 percent enrollment decrease in its adult classes. Foundation grants had dropped. As a result, the group had been forced to eliminate a full-time position, that of studio manager, at its Atlas Performing Arts Center space.

Then, last summer, something unanticipated happened. The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities invited local groups to apply for $240,000 it had received from the federal government as part of President Obama's stimulus package. Joy was one of 18 organizations to receive much-needed, albeit small, grants.

"It was a great year of lessons learned, tough love and focus. We had to focus on what is important," said Polly Thibodeau, Joy's development director. Joy, a nonprofit teaching organization with four locations in Washington and an annual budget of $2.2 million, received $12,500 in stimulus money.

When the studio manager position was cut, another manager assumed those duties. Two other jobs, one full time and another part time, were eliminated. Joy launched a fundraising campaign; between that and the stimulus funds, "there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel," Thibodeau said.

'Saving jobs'

To qualify for the lifeline that the stimulus money is providing, groups had to show they had lost a critical position from their administrative, educational or technological staffs. They also had to have received funds from the D.C. Commission in 2008 or 2009. The agency received 94 applications and sifted through about 80 that had not already received money from the National Endowment for the Arts' stimulus distribution earlier in the year. (No double-dipping allowed.)

"Most of these are community-based, nonprofit organizations," said Gloria Nauden, the commission's executive director.

When many people think of the stimulus program, jobs in the arts are not what first come to mind. These are not workers building bridges and repairing schools. They are, for example, set designers and managers, essential components of the arts infrastructure. Furthermore, though they are usually at the bottom of the pay scale, they do indeed pay taxes and contribute to the economy. As for the organizations themselves, the money may seem minuscule but will definitely help keep doors open. The direct impact, said Nauden, "was saving jobs."

Though many groups receiving stimulus money are grass-roots organizations, several have high profiles within the Washington arts firmament. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, with an annual budget of $3.5 million, received $19,000 to reinstate its outreach director, a pivotal position. The Patricia M. Sitar Center for the Arts, an after-school center, got $12,500 to help pay for teachers. THEARC received $19,000 to pay the salary of a production manager who oversees the 300 annual events at THEARC Theater.

The D.C. Youth Orchestra, which has an annual budget of around $650,000, won $19,000 to refill the administrative assistant post that had been vacant for more than a year. "Just because you are called administrative assistant doesn't mean you aren't doing 18 jobs," said Ava Spece, the orchestra's executive director.

In October 2008, when the Washington Men's Camerata let its general manager go, the board filled in, leaving the male choral group with just one full-time employee. "A lot of things fell through the cracks. When the same person has done the job for six or seven years, they know what to do," said Frank Albinder, the group's music director. The Camerata has been producing concerts for 25 years. Stimulus funds of $12,500 enabled the group to hire a part-time general manager. Donors contributed to fill the financial gaps. "We ended the fiscal year in pretty good shape," Albinder said.

Double Nickels Theatre, a three-year-old company, is devoted to creating shows drawn from the memories of local senior citizens. Toni Ford, the founder and artistic director, said keeping track of the company's many volunteers was a priority. Double Nickels signed up for consultations with the Kennedy Center's Arts in Crisis program and received $10,000 from the arts commission for a volunteer director. "That's $10,000 more than we had before," said Ford.

Half a loaf

In every case, organizations are scrambling; the goal is simply to sustain programming amid the worst economic downturn anyone can remember. Even not getting what was on your wish list is good enough, said Richard Strange, a violinist for the Capital City Symphony, which, like Joy of Motion, produces shows at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. "I asked for $8,000 to cover part of the salary costs for two of our essential positions, general manager and personal manager. We were awarded $4,000." With that and some cost-cutting, Strange said, "the orchestra will stay alive."

The stimulus money also helped to save some public programs. Ryan Brown, the conductor and artistic director of Opera Lafayette, can now breathe easier about his group's appearance at the Kennedy Center in February. "We had planned it as a celebration of our 15th anniversary. All the tickets are $15. We are devoting the stimulus money to the effort on marketing," said Brown, founder of the ensemble, which is dedicated to works from the 17th- and 18th-century opera repertory. For years the group had been frugal, and mounting a production with 80 people in the current economic climate definitely gave its leaders pause. "It is a bit of a high-risk strategy because we had been so fiscally sound so long. We faced the dilemma of 'Do we go forward with this?' " said Brown.

Dennis Sobin, the executive director of the Prisons Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes the work of incarcerated artists, is moving ahead with a presentation of plays written in prison, thanks to the $12,500 his organization received. For four years the foundation has been part of the Kennedy Center's annual Pages to Stages program, a reading of works in progress, or previews of a company's season. "That would have been in serious jeopardy," said Sobin. "The stimulus money will allow us to have someone solicit the materials. It takes a lot of mailings."

So the stimulus is working, at least to a degree -- but only temporarily.

Earlier this year, Theater Alliance of Washington applied for stimulus funds to preserve the company's only full-time job and to help it move ahead with plans for a staging of Langston Hughes's "Black Nativity" this month. "I had worked without a salary," said Paul Douglas Michnewicz, the alliance's executive director. "The stimulus money is able to fund half of my salary. It keeps me in the game."

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