Obama's budget proposals for arts institutions largely hold flat

By Liza Mundy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

If Monday's White House budget proposal tells us anything, it's this: These are tough fiscal times for an arts-loving president. Should the Obama administration get its way, funding for the nation's major arts and cultural institutions will stay largely flat, although a few organizations -- including the Smithsonian Institution and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- will see increases over what the president requested last year.

In general, arts organizations seemed grateful that things didn't turn out worse.

"These are numbers that we're happy with," said John Dow, a spokesman for the Kennedy Center. While the Kennedy Center saw a slight decrease in funding requested by the president, from $39.95 million in fiscal year 2010 to $37.42 million in 2011, that decrease was in money for capital repair and restoration, a figure that fluctuates from year to year depending on what projects are undertaken. Excluding repairs, the money allocated to operations and maintenance, $23.5 million, represents an increase of $1 million over the amount requested last year, in line with inflation.

Similarly, administrators at the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which supports organizations around the country, were gratified that their budget request of almost $266 million was virtually the same as last year's. And given that "in recent months museums all across the country have stepped up to provide social and public services that local governments are no longer able to provide," said Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums, he was, yes, "relieved."

Bell did voice disappointment, however, that two cultural programs under the auspices of the National Park Service -- Save America's Treasures and Preserve America, which direct money to protect historic treasures and other cultural resources -- are being defunded. David Barna, spokesman for the National Park Service, said that "when times get tough at an agency," officials must target programs that aren't funding "critical operations."

'Shifting priorities'

Two major grantmaking institutions -- the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities -- also saw their budget proposals hold flat. In each case, the president requested $161.3 million for 2011, the same amount requested last year. In 2010, both institutions eventually got more than that from Congress: $167.5 million. Looked at that way, the president's request does indeed represent a decrease.

Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, an advocacy organization, criticized the NEA funding, pointing out that the agency is attempting to fund a new program, Our Town, which it hopes will use the arts to revitalize communities; in order to make the project happen, the agency will have to cannibalize funds for existing programs. "Why hamper the potential impact of this new initiative by reducing the NEA's overall budget?" Lynch said in a statement.

But Jim Leach, chairman of the NEH, said the funding decisions were "understandable."

"We all recognize that the government has both a short- and a long-term problem with the deficit circumstance," said Leach. "As much as virtually all parts of the federal government can make a case for greater spending in their area, we have no choice but to live within a constrained budget." He added: "The macroeconomics is trumping microconcerns."

Other institutions saw incremental changes. The administration's request for the National Gallery of Art is $162.8 million, a decrease from the $165.245 requested in fiscal year 2010, and from the $167 million eventually enacted by Congress. "It's not a decrease. It's just that we're shifting priorities between projects," said spokeswoman Deborah Ziska. Money allocated for repairs, restoration and renovation will go from $56.3 million in 2010 to $48.2 million in 2011.

The administration is also requesting $50.5 million for the Holocaust Museum, a slight increase from the $48.6 million requested in 2010, money that Andrew Hollinger, a spokesman, says will go entirely to inflation and mandatory pay raises.

The proposed funding for National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs, which funds local D.C. organizations, is $4.5 million, a substantial reduction from the $9.5 million enacted in 2010. Past grant recipients of the NCACA have included Woolly Mammoth Theatre, the Textile Museum, Arena Stage, the National Symphony Orchestra and many other local arts groups.

Good news, for some

Given the climate, the reaction at the Smithsonian bordered on ecstatic.

"Any time we get additional funds, our reaction is going to be positive," said Linda St. Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian. The president is requesting $797.6 million for the Smithsonian in 2011, an increase of more than $38 million from the $759.2 million requested in 2010. (Congress enacted slightly more: $761.4 million.) St. Thomas said Smithsonian officials approached the Office of Management and Budget to lay out a four-part strategic plan that focuses on biodiversity (with funds for climate change research, among other things), the American experience, world cultures and mysteries of the universe. In the new budget, $10 million will go to these initiatives.

In addition, $2.4 million will go to physical collections care, including care of the animals at the National Zoo, and $1.5 million toward digitization of Smithsonian collections. There is also $106.1 million allocated to revitalize facilities, including $18 million to convert the parking garage of the National Museum of American History into usable space for collections storage during renovations; $17.6 million to replace windows and mechanical and electrical systems at the National Museum of Natural History; $16 million for a laboratory and support facility at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Md.; $11.4 million for infrastructure and renovation work for the National Zoo; and $8.8 million for renovations at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Of $30.5 million for planning and design, $20 million will go to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, scheduled to open in 2015.

Meanwhile, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- perennially on the chopping block in the Bush era -- also enjoyed a $20 million increase in funding requested for two-year advance appropriations, from $440 million requested in 2010 for 2012, to $460 million requested next year for 2013. "We are grateful to the administration for acknowledging the vital service public media provides to the American people," said Louise Filkins, a spokeswoman.

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