Bob Wilson hasn't received a paycheck since Nov. 1. He's not unemployed; in fact, he works 60 to 70 hours a week as executive director of Lettumplay, a nonprofit organization designed for the preservation and promotion of jazz. It is also one of 34 arts groups housed in th Lansburgh Cultural Center building at 420 Seventh St. NW.
Wilson was a victim of his own budget cutting after Lettumplay lost a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) that would have supplied it with $25,000 to $30,000 a year for administrative expenses. "It's killing me." Wilson commented. "But I'm determined to see the thing continues to go."
The NEA cuts have forced Wilson to reduce the schedule of the traveling performers who play at hospitals and prisons.
In times of financial hardship, nearly all cultural groups face similar problems in fundraising. The arts are not considered a top priority. Food for the stomach comes before food for the soul. "People are not going to spend $80 on an etching class if they have to spend it on food," said Carolyn Pomponio, director of workshops for the Washington Women's Arts Center (WWAC).
Another obstacle to fundraising is a lack of manpower both at the grassroots and corporate levels. "If you don't have a board of directors, you're biting the bullet even worse," Wilson said while citing the advantage of having board members who can utilize contacts at major corporations to secure grants. Because he must devote half of his time to fundraising, Wilson says, "we're getting away from our primary goal as a service organization."
One arts group facing a unique problem is the Ellington Fund, which is associated with the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. "It's hard, as a public school, to convince private people that programs which are supposedly funded by public tax monies need their money when the taxes should take care of it," said Maurice Eldridge, principal of the Ellington School, which was founded in 1974.
Since 1968, the Ellington Fund has had to make up the difference between the $34 per student supplied by the D.C. school board and the $240 real annual cost of educating the 431 Ellington students--a total of more than $87,000 a year.
Both Lettumplay and the Ellington Fund are planning benefit concerts. In 1980, a benefit featuring Lena Horne netted $72,000 for the Ellington Fund.
The Ellington Fund also received a three-year, $250,000-a-year challenge grant from the NEA. It matched the grant in each of its first two years. And the fund is close to meeting the matching requirement for the third year.
Many arts groups are reaching out to the general public for help. However, according to Karen Montgomery, executive director of the WWAC, "the private sector has not been too responsive." And individual contributing to nonprofit organizations will be discouraged by Reagan's proposed tax laws, according to a recent study done by the Urban Institute.
The added incentives of lower overhead, combined with a unification of arts organizations in D.C., makes the Lansburgh Center a desirable headquarters for local artists. According to Montgomery, "It's the one meeting place for all the segments of the art community."
A tenant's coalition took over management of the center April 1, when the D.C. Foundation for Creative Space dissolved itself after two years of managing the building. The foundation sublet the building from the D.C. government, which is leasing it from the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. (PADC) until 1986.
The current lease provides space to these groups at a cost of $1.50 per square foot.
"We are about cultural expression," Wilson said. "They the D.C. Foundation for Creative Space were worried about bricks and mortar. . . . We are not interested in bricks and mortar." Wilson says that in 1986 when the lease expires there will be a Lansburgh Cultural Center even if it is not located at the Lansburgh site.
If it does remain in the current location, budget cuts will force major modifications of the original plan. The number of theaters in the building will be reduced from three to two. A restaurant was in the original plan, but without a guaranteed lease, it is doubtful a restaurateur would decide to open on a short-term basis.
"We are focusing on groups who are committed to work in the realm of the center," agreed Vernard Gray, executive director of CA-FAM III (Collective Action for Alternative Media). "Survival of the groups is our ultimate goal."
Gray said he believes arts organizations must develop relationships with corporations in order to gain their support. "Corporate grants are given for social reality, to make [corporations] look good."
"For example," he said, "The Atlantic Richfield Corp. (ARCO) recently funded a black photography exhibit, but the exhibit was shown in areas of the country where ARCO has offices or plants. . . . They used the exhibit to improve their image."
A key to the nonprofits' fight against the troubled economy is improving their marketing skills. "We must become more serviceable to the community," said Gray. CA-FAM III uses revenue from the Miya Gallery, which is located on the ground floor of the Lansburgh building. It features black art, cultural magazines, books, records, beads and clothing to continue the growth of the group's less economically viable projects such as Palavra, a a black arts review published quarterly.
The WWAC has been relying on contributions from its members in an attempt to continue scheduling women's art exhibitions at their Q Street gallery and workshops on the visual, literary and performing arts at the Lansburgh building.
The future of nonprofit arts groups in the Washington area lies largely in the hands of corporations and their willingness to contribute. And with the country in a recession, the spiritual importance of the arts cannot be overlooked, Wilson says. In any period of depression, "the arts have flourished," he observed. "A person could go to a movie for an hour and escape reality."