State funding for arts in jeopardy
Government funding for the arts is falling on hard times amid the state's multibillion-dollar budget shortfall.
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
OLYMPIA — Government funding for the arts is falling on hard times amid the state's multibillion budget shortfall.
Gov. Chris Gregoire proposes eliminating the Washington State Arts Commission and slashing state funding for grants to hundreds of nonprofit arts organizations, ranging from the Seattle Symphony Orchestra to the Icicle Creek Theatre Festival in Leavenworth.
Some lawmakers also want to scale back or repeal a separate program the agency runs that sets aside one-half of 1 percent from the construction of state-owned buildings to commission works of art displayed in public buildings and public spaces.
"The budget challenge is the biggest that we've faced in decades," said Kris Tucker, the commission's executive director. "The key questions there are about our funding level, our structure and our authority."
The amount of money involved is modest: The state now spends about $3 million a year total for the public art program, the arts commission and the grants it awards. But with the state budget shortfall topping $5 billion, lawmakers are weighing the state's role in promoting and funding art.
The proposed cuts come as no surprise to artists and arts advocates, who have seen state support for art decline nationwide during the economic downturn. In Washington, cuts already made to the arts commission this fiscal year were much deeper than the national average, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.
The program that acquires public art is funded through the state capital budget, which pays for construction projects. The arts commission and its grants are funded through the operating budget — which pays for schools, prisons, health care and other services — along with federal money and private contributions.
Gregoire suggests cutting the commission's state share this coming fiscal year by 80 percent — from $1.2 million to $250,000.
The state money makes up less than half of the agency's budget, but federal funding is expected to drop as well. Gregoire's proposal also would eliminate the agency and move its core functions to the state Department of Commerce.
"She absolutely sees the importance of publicly funded art, but it's hard to fund art when at the same time you're eliminating people off of health care and other social services," said Karina Shagren, the governor's spokeswoman.
Most of the state's arts spending goes to public art funded by construction dollars.
The program has enjoyed strong support in the Legislature — even during the budget crisis — but critics view it as a luxury the state can't afford. The roughly $2 million a year going to sculptures, murals and other works would be better spent on the construction projects themselves, they argue.
"Art is nice frosting on the cake, but when we cannot afford the cake what are we investing in frosting for?" said Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood.
The program was approved by the Legislature nearly four decades ago to create an art collection that would enrich the public and help support artists.
Artists from the Western states and British Columbia compete for a spot on a roster that makes them eligible for projects. Artists from outside the region can be nominated by a peer-review panel to apply.
About 40 percent of the nearly 4,600 pieces paid for through the program are by artists who don't live in Washington — a sore spot for some lawmakers who say it should be limited to state artists, especially during bad economic times.
The pieces range from a $44 embossed print called "Morningstar Eagle" by Spokane artist Carol Snow, displayed in a public area of the Clallam Bay Corrections Center, to a $467,431 series of whimsical bronze sculptures called "Wild Life" by New York artist Tom Otterness.
The outdoor sculptures, installed last year in Connell, Franklin County, were funded through expansion of the nearby Coyote Ridge Corrections Center.
One bill sponsored by Carrell, SB 5100, would exempt the state from allocating money from the construction of prisons and halfway houses to public art for the next two years. Another bill, SB 5109, would eliminate the public-art program altogether.
The chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said he doesn't intend to move the bills out of his committee. He said state-funded art helps stimulate the economy, much like President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, which hired artists during the Great Depression.
"It think that's a strong Democratic tradition and one that we need to continue," Murray said.
Artist Peter Richards relies heavily on public art programs, including Washington's.
Although he's from California, Richards said he purchases materials in Washington, hires workers to install his sculptures here and pays a state use tax.
He is nearing completion of a $111,532 piece funded from building construction and renovation at Peninsula College in Port Angeles.
Inspired by the idea of collectively shared space, the cast aluminum and basalt sculpture of the seven most prominent peaks in the Olympic National Park will be located at the college's student commons.
While state support for art is debated, the arts commission is in financial limbo.
State funding for the agency dropped 25 percent in the 2010 fiscal year and is down at least another 27 percent this year.
Commission officials worry that in addition to the deeper cuts proposed for the next budget, merging the commission with another agency, or eliminating it altogether, could jeopardize funding it receives from the National Endowment for the Arts to help support its grant program.
Most of the agency's $2.8 million annual budget covers grants to more than 200 nonprofit arts organizations, including the Intiman Theatre, the Seattle Opera and the Wing Luke Asian Museum. Recent grants ranged from $750 to $49,120.
The commission has put the grant program on hold for now.
Tucker, the commission's executive director, said she's worried about how a loss in the agency's role in grant making could affect its recipients.
"Our relatively small grants effectively leverage other funding so an individual who wants to contribute to an arts organization in the community will look for our logo or grant on a list of other funders for the organization as a stamp of approval," Tucker said.
The commission has awarded Jack Straw Productions in Seattle $21,175 to promote arts education for K-12 students.
Jack Straw's executive director, Joan Rabinowitz, said the money has funded projects such as one in Kimball Elementary School where bilingual students worked with vocal coaches and sound artists to produce audio vignettes about their family histories.
"The state [funding] for us works as a base and then we would apply for additional grants, or try to get additional individual support to augment it," Rabinowitz said. "We'll all keep trying to make it work, but it feels a lot harder to do without the Washington State Arts Commission."
Meanwhile, Tucker says the agency is looking at other ways to fulfill its mission.
"There is going to be an evolution in how we as a state agency can best support public participation in the arts," she said. "It's unrealistic to expect even a generous Legislature in the next three months will restore our funding to our current level."
Queenie Wong: 360-236-8267 or email@example.com
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