Arts Desk

Fed Up: Why Cuts to National Capital Arts Grants Are Disastrous for Small D.C. Arts Groups

Dance Place's Carla Perlo

When the House Appropriations Committee published the list of federal program cuts in the continuing budget resolution that averted a government shutdown earlier this month, one small cut sent a shockwave across Washington. You probably read about it.

Another got less attention.

The bill keeping the federal government open through the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year slashed nearly 70 percent from the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs’ grants, a tiny program that supports the District’s cultural scene in a big way. As Washington City Paper reported last week, the cuts will have a miniscule impact on some of the city’s biggest arts organizations—but a devastating effect on its tinier ones.

Established in 1985 to support cultural institutions that don’t line the National Mall, the creation of the NCACA program is one of the few acts of congressional meddling in D.C. that has done some good. Its budget rose steadily through last year, when 24 organizations ranging in size and notability qualified for grants totaling $9.5 million in federal dollars. Under the continuing resolution, that figure was reduced to $3 million for 2011.

But funding cuts aren’t the only things that have some NCACA beneficiaries worrying about the program’s future. If the White House has its way, in fiscal year 2012 the grant-making process would be transferred from the federal Commission of Fine Arts to the District’s Commission on the Arts and Humanities. President Barack Obama’s proposed 2012 budget says the change in venue would “result in grants being awarded more reliably.”

“The current NCACA funds are provided based on a 25-year-old formula that does not address performance factors or the actual needs of an organization,” says Meg Reilly, a spokeswoman for the White House Office of Management and Budget. “In fact, the formula provides the largest amount of funds to those recipients with the highest annual income. A competitive proposal and review process, along with post-award reviews, will enhance the quality and performance of grant recipients by holding them accountable for the funds they receive.”

Currently, the federally appointed Commission of Fine Arts distributes NCACA funds based on a strict formula, not financial need or critical merit. The first 70 percent of NCACA’s total funding is divided evenly among the recipient groups—in last year’s case each grant had a base of $277,083. The remaining 30 percent is parceled out based on each organization’s operating income as a percentage of the combined operating income of all beneficiaries. The Kennedy Center received an NCACA grant last year of $650,000—the largest in raw dollar terms, but barely a sliver of its operating income of $94 million.

Then there are groups like Dance Place, which took in just a hair over $1.1 million last year. The Brookland studio is the smallest and newest NCACA beneficiary. The $290,779 it received was the least doled out by the federal program but accounted for a full quarter of its budget. For a group like Dance Place, the federal grant quite literally keeps the lights on, pays the rent, and hires performers and instructors to fill the calendar.

Shrinking the pot will favor even more the moneyed heavyweights; the Kennedy Center and Washington National Opera only received $650,000 each because of a ceiling on the grants. A smaller fund doesn’t necessarily mean fewer awards, but it does certainly mean fewer opportunities for groups like Dance Place. Under the current formula, each recipient organization would receive a base amount of $87,500 after the cuts.

“We have put an absolute freeze on all hiring and raises,” Dance Place founder Carla Perlo says. Perlo has a full-time staff of 15 in addition to a couple dozen instructors who teach part-time. She is also planning to scale back some of her larger performances like Dance Africa, a festival she has staged for 23 years. Last year’s edition closed down the Brookland space’s block of 8th Street NE for 20 vendors and more than 500 performers. That won’t be repeated this year. Perlo decided to reduce the festival’s scope before hearing of the cut to NCACA funding in anticipation of a total loss amid federal budget wrangling.

“We are a fiscally conservative organization,” Perlo says. “I am proud for making the decision to not have that aspect of the festival. That’ll save the organization $18,000.” Not that she’s boasting. Smaller performances mean fewer partnerships with local businesses and part-time jobs for city youths. “I think the thinking is, ‘That’s OK, no free art’,” she says. “It’s not just about art. It’s about jobs and cultural programs and keeping teenagers off the street and keeping them employed.”

GALA Hispanic Theatre also depends on a NCACA grant for a substantial chunk of its budget: The $296,385 it got last year was 18.6 percent of its roughly $1.6 million operating income. “I don’t know how much we’re going to do yet,” says Rebecca Read Medrano, GALA’s executive director. When Medrano met with her board of directors earlier this week, one proposed solution cut the upcoming season from four shows to three.

Plugging the hole that will be left by a much smaller NCACA grant means relying more heavily on private donors. In catering to a specific ethnic group, GALA has a few challenges. “We don’t have a large subscription base. Latinos don’t subscribe as much,” Medrano says. Just to qualify for an NCACA grant an organization must raise at least $1 million annually for at least three years without the help of the federal government. “To raise $1 million in private funds is hard. Latino donors are tiny.”

The District government chips in a bit, but those funds are receding too, Medrano says. “We’ve been hit on all sides. We have no money for our summer program now.”

The city’s Commission on the Arts and Humanities has seen its grant funding fall from $7.25 million in 2010 to $3.8 million this year. While it distributes hundreds of grants, very few exceed $30,000 and nearly all are awarded for specific programming, not operations. Applicants are also prohibited from receiving more than two grants per year. For 2011, GALA received a $22,500 award for arts education. The “wonderful part” of an NCACA grant, Medrano says, is that it applies to general operations—it can pay a performer as readily as it can pay the mortgage.

Ayris Scales, the interim director of the D.C. arts agency, is unsure what revisions to the federal arts agenda mean for her office. “At this point in, I do not know what if any administrative changes will be imposed,” she writes in an email.

But while in fiscal year 2011 NCACA grants may favor its richer recipients, the Commission of Fine Arts hopes that will change if control of the fund shifts to DCCAH in 2012. “Is it fair when you have much larger, well-established organizations, get the big grants? We have no mechanism to change the formula,” says Thomas Luebke, the secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts. “The president’s budget makes it more competitive. We’re not set up to do it that way; perhaps another organization could.”

D.C.’s private arts organizations are quick to point out that every state has a mechanism for funding arts and culture. But those are paid for with the states’ own tax dollars—just as D.C. taxes fund both the Commission on the Arts and Humanities and city appropriators. Arena Stage didn’t have to go to the federal government for the $25 million that helped build its new complex. Using federal dollars, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities help organizations all over the country. And arts budgets, both federal and state, have been shrinking.

In contrast, the NCACA gives federal dollars to one city’s private organizations and no others—it’s a bonus.

But that doesn’t mean cuts aren’t crippling. While Dance Place assumed it would lose all NCACA funds, the cuts caught most other arts organizations by surprise. The two or three richest groups of the 24 grant recipients will likely be fine without it, but to rewrite the program so abruptly has shocked the financial ledgers of most. Medrano calls it “one more slap” and a “sad situation” for the District’s cultural life.

Studio Theatre received an NCACA grant of $343,112 last year. The gift was 6.3 percent of its $5.4 million operating income—a smaller ratio than Dance Place or GALA, but not insignificant. Morey B. Epstein, Studio Theatre’s director of institutional development, echoes Perlo’s predictions this cut will ripple through the local economy.

“This is just a terrible time for the city to be losing $7 million that goes to arts organizations and from there into the city’s economy,” Epstein says. “They’re the economic engines that revitalize neighborhoods. They pay vendors and salaries. The nation’s capital should be a shining light where the country showcases its arts and cultural life. This cut is going to diminish that.”

Studio Theatre’s retired founder, Joy Zinoman, was more blunt in her criticism of the federal budget process and angry the slashing of NCACA grants wasn’t noticed sooner. “What [this] will do to the cultural life in Washington is a criminal act,” she said. “To suddenly get a hit of this magnitude is like a state arts council being demolished, but no one is saying poop.”

As an emergency revenue-boosting measure, Medrano says GALA may have to keep its bar open longer, stretch extra performances out of productions, and show films on nights the stage is dark. GALA has instituted hiring and wage freezes, as has Dance Place. Perlo is “trying desperately” to avoid layoffs, to say nothing of the part-time positions she won’t be able to have this summer.

The $6.5 million cut from the NCACA program amounts to just over one-one-hundredth of one percent of the $38.5 billion shaved off the total federal budget last week. But unlike the controversial rider prohibiting the District from using its own tax revenues to provide abortions to low-income women, there were no demonstrations or arrests to protest the loss of arts funding.

“Where is the screaming?” Zinoman asks. “They said, ‘we’re fucking over D.C. on [abortion],’ but no one’s saying ‘we’re fucking over the arts community.’”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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