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State reduces grants to arts groups by 22 percent

Monday, March 11, 2002

By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer

More than 50 arts groups in the Pittsburgh area that were slated to receive checks from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts this winter have been told that 22 percent of their grant will be cut, and that their check won't be in the mail for a few months.

The news has sent many arts managers -- especially those at smaller organizations that depend heavily on state money -- scrambling to make cuts or find alternative funding. Having budgeted for the grant at the beginning of their fiscal year, they want to avoid scaling back their outreach programs or lowering the quality of their shows because of the cut.

"We were all worried after Sept. 11th what the impact would be, and around Christmas there was a feeling we weathered the storm," said Suzanne Vertosick, executive director of Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, which will lose $4,000 from a promised $20,000 grant. "But then this happened."

Gov. Schweiker requested last month that the Council on the Arts immediately freeze $1.4 million of its $15.4 million budget to help balance the state budget, which has suffered a $600 million revenue shortfall. The governor ordered a total freeze in state spending of $309 million.

Staff at the Council on the Arts decided that the equitable way to recoup $1.1 million of its frozen funds -- $300,000 in cuts were made elsewhere in the group's budget -- was to make the same percentage cut in all grants not yet distributed.

Arts groups that have already received their money this year will not have their grant reduced, which leaves their less fortunate counterparts frustrated that they will be penalized simply because their check was one of the last ones scheduled to go out.

A spokeswoman for the Council on the Arts, Heather Doughty, said the grant application states that the amount of a grant can change according to the availability of state funds.

Renaissance City Winds, where Council on the Arts money is the biggest single source of support, will see a $1,700 cut in its promised $8,200 grant. That might not seem like a lot, said artistic director Jim Whipple, but it might force the chamber music ensemble to eliminate one of its two "Music in the Neighborhoods" outreach concerts this summer.

"Education and outreach is where the grant money goes," Whipple said. "So when grant money disappears, those are the things that disappear first."

Because Renaissance City Winds didn't receive its grant in January, as it had expected, its board had to cover the salaries of musicians in the group's February concert.

"It's one thing to deal with a cut when you have time to prepare for it," Whipple said. "But if it happens midstream, you can't go cutting public programs or else you'll lose your reputation. You end up having to scramble and pick up the slack wherever you can."

Pittsburgh Filmmakers' executive director Charlie Humphrey said his organization will likely buy less equipment for its film, photography and digital media students due to the $19,7000 cut in its $91,000 grant. Amy Heathcott, general manager of Pittsburgh Musical Theater, said production expenses will likely be cut to make up for the $4,000 lost from a $19,000 grant.

"It makes a difficult year for us even worse," said Steven Libman, managing director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, which will lose $39,000 from a $182,000 grant. The ballet has already made significant cuts this year to eliminate a $600,000 operating deficit.

Statewide, 198 arts groups have been jostled by the freeze. But good news has arrived for Philadelphia. The William Penn Foundation has decided to award $600,000 to the 88 groups in the Philadelphia area affected by the cuts. The money will be distributed by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.

"A last-minute, unprecedented reduction in much-needed state funding that already has been committed to local arts groups would have destabilized our cultural community," said Kathryn Engebretson, president of the William Penn Foundation.

This is the first time Pennsylvania has frozen allocated funds in the middle of a fiscal year.

A mass letter-writing effort to lift the freeze has been initiated by Citizens for the Arts in Pennsylvania, a Harrisburg advocacy group, and supported in Pittsburgh by the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Alliance. Doughty said there's "always a chance [the freeze] can be lifted because it's a freeze, but it looks remote."

Whipple said Renaissance City Winds "will survive this -- but that's not the point. Something like this creates upheaval and distracts us from moving ahead. It seems like we work so hard just to stand still."

Caroline Abels can be reached at cabels@post-gazette.com.

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