What Congress gave, the White House taketh away.
A $5 million fund created by Congress to help musuems, theaters and performing arts groups in the Washington area will be transferred to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where it will be used to help pay for firefighting, according to the Reagan administration budget proposal released yesterday.
The transfer proposal, buried deep within fine print of the five-pound "Appendix to the Budget of the United States Fiscal Year 1986," took the directors of the major Washington arts institutions by surprise and few were happy about it.
"This is really dirty pool," said Tom Fichandler, executive director of Arena Stage. "We were told that money was there and that we could count on it. What about the fires we were supposed to be fighting for Washington's major cultural institutions?"
"I consider it highly unlikely that it will stay that way," said Michael Botwinick, director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
The fund was set up by Congress last year to help those large Washington area organizations outside the umbrella of federal funding. Those groups have long complained of the difficulty of fund-raising in Washington, which lacks major corporations as well as the layers of state and county bureaucracies that lend support to arts groups elsewhere.
"The whole idea is that this is a city without any big companies to support the arts," said Frankie Hewitt, executive producer of Ford's Theatre, which like Wolf Trap Farm Park already receives some federal funding through the National Park Service.
"Since we don't have any state or county support, any adjustment downward is probably a bad thing," said John Berg, finance director of the National Symphony Orchestra.
The fund was also intended to make more equitable the haphazard process by which those organizations have received funds from Congress in past years. "We had been getting a long list of individual groups each year seeking support; some of the money was handled through the Smithsonian, some of it came from the National Park Service," said Linda Richardson, a staff member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that approved the fund as an amendment to the budget bill for fiscal 1985. "We felt it would be better to have a formalized process."
According to the requirements of the fund, groups like the National Symphony Orchestra, Wolf Trap Farm Park, Ford's Theatre, Arena Stage and the Corcoran Gallery of Art would have been eligible to apply for money, in the form of grants, as early as October of this year.
Although Congress appropriated the fund, it delayed its start until fiscal 1986 to give the National Park Service, which was to administer it, time to set it up. The Park Service plans had gotten no further than the studies of grant programs elsewhere. At least one arts organization, nonetheless, had already figured a slice of the $5 million into its budget for next year. "The budget I prepared had it there -- a substantial figure, probably between $300,000 and $400,000," said Arena's Fichandler.
The National Park Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs are both part of the Department of the Interior. The transfer of the $5 million within the department requires congressional approval. That debate is not likely to take place until after April, when firefighting funds are considered.
Congressional sources said yesterday that the fund has never been a favorite of Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman. They speculated that Stockman chose to transfer its resources to firefighting accounts because firefighting is a large expense in the states of the two senators most closely associated with the legislation that created the Washington arts fund. They are Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho) and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).
Informed of the proposed transfer, Stevens said only that the Senate Appropriations subcommittee for the Interior Department would "have a great deal of interest in that item." McClure could not be reached for comment.
Not all of the major arts institutions felt threatened by news of the proposed transfer. Ire tended to be inversely proportional to the amount of federal money received. "We still get a lot of money through the Interior Department," said Morgan Rasmussen, a spokesman for the Wolf Trap Foundation. "We feel well taken care of."
Fichandler, by comparison, was fuming. "This is last-minute legerdemain and it's a very, very clever device. What congressman is going to stand up and try to take money away from poor Indians and give it back to cultural organizations in Washington, D.C.?"