Inside D.C. entertainment

Mayor Gray to cash-strapped arts organizations: Volunteer

January 20, 2011 - 04:13 PM
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Mayor Vincent Gray gave the keynote address at Cultural Tourism D.C.'s annual membership meeting, and he didn't shy away from addressing the paucity of arts funding in this economic climate. His suggestion? Volunteerism.

"I don't want to make the future seem any less difficult than what it really is. It is going to be difficult," said Gray. "But you know what? Not everything takes money. Frankly, it oftentimes takes commitment on the part of us, to be able to communicate to share the history and the culture and ... the rich opportunity that we have in the District of Columbia, with our children … That's what volunteerism is all about. And frankly, these are the kind of fiscal times that bring back volunteerism."

The arts organizations that are already stretched too thin with staffs already comprised entirely of volunteers are most certainly thrilled to hear this novel suggestion.

Gray, in an address to members of Cultural Tourism D.C., called himself an advocate, and spoke about the arts as a force that stabilizes neighborhoods, citing the Studio Theatre and the Lincoln Theatre as examples. He said he hoped that D.C. could become a cultural city on par with New York, San Francisco, and the capitals of European cities.

"I want people in London, I want people in Paris, I want people in the world-class cities to say, 'You know what? They've got it goin' on in Washington, D.C.," said Gray. "The reason they would say that is because of arts and culture."

To which people in London replied, "I beg your pardon, who?" People in Paris just half-smirked, unwilling waste a full smirk on our city's cultural institutions.

Arts funding in D.C. has been slashed significantly in recent years. Gray was straightforward about the fiscal situation for next year — he called it "horrific" — but still said that the arts were "an economic engine for the city." But will that hold true if arts organizations are forced to increasingly rely upon volunteers to maintain their programming and their budgets? Rob Bettmann, chair of the D.C. Advocates for the Arts, says that it all depends on how nimbly arts organizations can adapt to the economic climate.

"If they adapt by getting more volunteers, more power to them," said Bettmann. "In running any business, professionalism is required ... it's organizations that are well-run that do better, period."

In other words, relying upon an army of volunteers has its own costs, and organizations may suffer as a result. That's why Bettmann hopes that arts funding from the D.C. government will finally plateau this year. Gray did not directly address whether or not arts funding would be cut again in the 2012 budget.

"Dedicated arts funding is a tiny, tiny part of the overall budget — less than five million in a 4 billion dollar spending plan — and I hope the mayor won't consider further reducing that investment," he said.

Gray said that volunteerism is a temporary measure to get the city's arts organizations through tough times.

"People who are dedicated and devoted to the arts … we're going to have to rely heavily upon you to keep alive those things that you've worked so hard to build, and frankly, help us to be able to get to the next place," said Gray. "in a few years, I think our fiscal stability... will be improved significantly."

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