In a potentially devastating blow to Durham's arts community, temporary City Manager Patrick Baker has proposed eliminating more than $118,000 in arts and culture funding. The proposal, presented to City Council on May 19 and in public on May 27, would have the city scrap all support for the African American Dance Ensemble and the Walltown Children's Theatre, and significantly reduce funding to seven additional grassroots arts and culture organizations. In all, Baker's budget staff has proposed reducing funding for nonprofits arts groups by 28 percent.
The proposed cuts fall under the category of non-city agencies, which the City defines as "nonprofits doing business in the city, providing services supporting City Council goals." The agencies, which include public health, safety, youth and community development initiatives, face a total of $188,000 in budget cuts—effectively a 19 percent reduction overall from last year's budget. In short, nearly two-thirds, or approximately 63 percent, of the budget cuts are at the expense of arts organizations.
In a PowerPoint presentation to City Council, Baker writes, "The city enhanced its competitive process for funding non-city agencies." Baker also explained that the city would enter into a management agreement with the Durham Arts Council, which means that the agency's $581,000 budget, which remains unchanged, has been moved out of the non-city agencies budget.
The proposed budget does not provide funding for the Durham Cultural Master Plan, a 15-year program implemented in 2004 with a one-time occupancy tax grant to foster economic development and encourage communication among diverse groups through the arts. Ironically, the groups hit hardest by the proposed cuts were three prominent African-American arts groups: the St. Joseph's Historic Foundation, which produces the Bull Durham Blues Festival and faces a $59,000 reduction in city funding, and the Chuck Davis African American Dance Ensemble and Walltown Children's Theatre, both of which may lose all city funding.
"It appears that African-American programs and organizations, in the arts category anyway, were significantly impacted by the panel, or whatever process was used by the city," said Evonne Coleman, former director of the Durham Arts Council. "It's extremely concerning and quite shocking."
Walltown Children's Theatre has received back-to-back Shakespeare grants from the National Endowment for the Arts for its Spanish-language production of Romeo and Juliet. Chuck Davis, founder and artistic director of the African American Dance Ensemble, has served on several NEA panels and was recently awarded the international Capezio Dance Award.
"It makes you want to almost pull up and go someplace else," said Joseph Henderson, co-founding director of Walltown Children's Theatre. "There doesn't seem to be a cohesive mind of how they should approach the arts. It's amazing that you can get funding from a national organization and get absolutely nothing from your own city. That's where it really hurts."
Peg Palmer, executive director of Durham's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which stands to lose 30 percent of its city funding, agreed that national funding and recognition doesn't "make up for hometown support." Palmer described the arts organizations losing grant money—which also include the Durham Symphony, the Mallarmé Chamber Players, the Center for Documentary Studies, The Scrap Exchange and the American Dance Festival—as "incredibly dedicated people giving way more time than they'll ever be paid for" and the "personality of our town."
Referring to the city's recent investment into the $46 million Durham Performing Arts Center, Palmer said that large-scale arts productions "take us to another level, but they really don't replace these organizations that are well run, consistent, doing wonderful thing year after year, on all levels."
Sherry DeVries, executive director of the Durham Arts Council, agreed.
"We certainly understand the importance of the Durham Performing Arts Center, in terms of bringing audiences and economic impact to Durham," she said. "But it is equally important to sustain and support the local arts community, which has been bringing audiences and economic impact to Durham for many, many years. You can't do one at the exclusion, or detriment, of the other."
Barker French, chair of the Cultural Master Plan advisory board, said the city has not provided the public with information about how the cutbacks were decided, or who sat on which committee in determining the cuts.
"Absent some information from the budget manager, or the city manager, or people who were involved, I have no conviction that the people who were doing these reviews had any knowledge of what they were doing, and what the impact is on the community for these recommendations," French said.
Bertha Johnson, Durham's budget director, did not return multiple calls seeking comment. Melinda Squires-Nelson, a city employee whose name is listed on the budget proposal, claimed to have no knowledge of the budget cuts. After answering the phone at 4 p.m. Friday, she said that Johnson and all other budget analysts were "gone for the day."
City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget Monday, June 2, at 7 p.m. in council chambers.
"I'll be there with everybody else," French said. "We'll spend the night there, because that's what it's going to be. It's going to be a late one."