Arts Desk

Arts Backers Find District Budget “Devastating”

Although the 6 percent sales tax on performance tickets suggested by Mayor Vince Gray in his proposed budget was struck down last month by the D.C. Council after waves of protest from the theater community, leaders of Washington's arts scene are still displeased with the final version of the budget the council passed last week.

The budget will reduce the Commission on the Arts and Humanities' funding for fiscal 2012 to $3.92 million, down from $4.3 million the agency received for grants and operations in 2011. The reduction continues a slide that began after the commission's funding peaked at more than $13 million in fiscal 2009.

While the so-called "ticket tax" was eliminated on May 25, arts advocates had to settle for that as their lone victory in this year's city budget negotiations. Continued budget slashing will leave Washington lagging behind other cities, says Helen Hayes Awards President and CEO Linda Levy Grossman, who spearheaded the public outcry against the proposed sales tax. Grossman believes the "ticket tax" and repeated funding cuts stem from some of the Wilson Building's current occupants thinking the arts are for the few and the privileged.

"There’s no investment in the arts community here even though it delivers exponentially because there’s still there’s a short-sighted idea of who attends and who supports it," Grossman says. With other major cities building up their artistic communities—Grossman named Atlanta and Pittsburgh—Washington risks falling back. "These are cities not necessarily known as being cultural centers, but boy-oh-boy do their governments recognize the power of the arts."

In addition to the increasingly austere level of local funds, the District's budget plans for another $5 million in federal funding—the result of a line item in the White House's proposed 2012 budget that would shift the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs grant program from the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts to local administration. (The program's 2011 funding was gutted earlier this year from $9.5 million to $3 million.) A White House spokeswoman told Washington City Paper in April that the transfer would make arts grants more competitive, but local arts supporters take a more skeptical view—that the $5 million will evaporate in the next round of federal budget negotiations.

"I think it's really risky," Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans says of the White House proposal. "Given what the federal government is doing in their approach to things I believe it will be cut out." Artomatic's George Koch called it a "red herring" at a May 2 council hearing.

Evans, who voted against the budget last week largely over cuts to police hiring and a tax on non-District municipal bonds, expresses frustration that District arts funding continues to sag. "We’re at the point where we are restoring the social service budget, he says. "We should be restoring the arts budget and we’re really not talking about that."

The confluence of the "ticket tax" proposal, District budget cuts, and the paring down of the NCACA program was a "triple whammy," Grossman says. Even with the sales tax off the table, the double whammy was no less "devastating."

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