Inside D.C. entertainment

How the budget cuts will hurt D.C. arts organizations

April 13, 2011 - 10:00 AM
Text size Decrease Increase

Hey D.C.! The abortion and voucher riders aren't the only way that Congress has gotten all up in our local business. Congress made a drastic cut to the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs program grant, which provides significant grants to the operating budgets of all of the District's largest private non-profit arts organizations. Last year, the NCACA grant dished out $9.5 million to arts organizations ranging from the Kennedy Center to the Choral Arts Society. But the new budget slashes this number by $7 million — and that's a cut that will be deeply felt by many of our theaters and cultural organizations. In a separate cut, the National Gallery will lose $8 million.

Though each organization will independently decide how to adapt to the cuts, Thomas Luebke, Secretary for the Commission of Fine Arts, classified them as "significant." He says that the average grant for the 24 participating organizations last year was $400,000, but he expects it to be closer to $100,000 this year. The amount of each grant is decided by a formula that was determined by Congress, says Luebke.

"It could be five staff people," says Luebke. "It's considerable."

The grant is intended to assist organizations with their operating budget, rather than their programming. In other words, instead of going toward severed head props and livestock, it's the money that keeps the lights and heat on, and pays staff salaries. And while all arts organizations need that cash, some need it more desperately than others.

"For the smallest organizations that are in [the program], it represents a larger portion of their funding — it could be 20 percent," says Luebke. "For a larger organization, it might not be quite so severe."

Last year, the Kennedy Center received the largest grant from NCACA: $650,000 that represents less than one percent of their annual operating budget. Contrast that with the Choral Arts Society, which received half that amount. But that $315,000 represents 10 percent of their operating budget, and communications manager Stephanie Taylor says that staff members are already anticipating that they will slash the Society's educational programs and student concerts.

"We've always operated on a skeletal budget — we're conscious of, when we print to the color printer it's 10 cents per page, instead of the black and white, where it's 1 cent," says Taylor. "We're the best stewards of the revenue we get, but now it's about what gets sacrificed, and what goes, and which part of our education programs can we cease to offer."

The Choral Arts Society produces several concerts for a student-only audience each year, and maintains an online classroom that Taylor says is used by educators around the world. Because those programs don't generate any revenue, Taylor says they may be the first to go. Choral Arts Society staff have also been advised that staff cuts are an option. Even so, they're relieved: "It was more tense here on the government shutdown day [last Friday] because we thought we were going to lose everything," says Taylor.

Big venues and organizations aren't immune to the hit their budgets will take, either. Arena Stage is well-supported by private foundations and corporate grants, and was the beneficiary of the largest gift ever given by a single household to an American theater —– $35 million from Gilbert and Jaylee Mead.

"Obviously, a cut in the appropriation from $9.5 to $3 million to the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs Program causes us all a great deal of concern, especially coming as late in the day as it does," says managing director Edgar Dobie in a statement. "In truth, we do not know at this moment what the direct impact will be on this and next year's budget, but it will be significant. By significant, I mean it will touch all areas of our programming services and operations."

Dance Place, which received the smallest grant last year ($290,779), may take the largest hit. The money represents nearly a quarter of its operating budget. In a conversation with director Carla Perlo about arts funding prior to the decision to slash the budget, she lamented the additional businesses that would suffer at the hands of cuts to the arts.

"Those dollars…generate more dollars," said Perlo. "I'm talking about the restaurants, the parking lots - it's a whole trickle down effect. It's the Metro, it's the gas stations, it's people leaving their homes. It's a whole slew of jobs and business drivers that will be lost if [arts organizations] have to be cut."

Read More:

1 Comment