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Raising voices, changing fortunes

Grassroots arts supporters turn the tide in state arts funding

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How did they dodge the bullet?

Back in March, arts organizations in North Carolina were staring at funding cuts in the high six figures for fiscal 2003-04, as Gov. Mike Easley tried to slice his way out of an $800 million deficit in the state budget. Easley's proposed budget called for total cuts of $665,000 in the arts--$626,000 of which was to be taken from the N.C. Arts Council's (NCAC) competitive and grassroots grants, which fund local artists and arts organizations across the state. If ratified, the sum would have contributed to a total 42-percent cut in funding for the Arts Council since Easley began his term in office.

And that was the good news. In a Greensboro regional NCAC meeting, Secretary of Cultural Resources Lisbeth Evans revealed that the governor's office had been actively considering cuts three times greater than the one they proposed, terming the proposed budget reductions "as good as it's going to get...for arts in North Carolina."

Skies darkened further when Evans disclosed, after a March 18 budgetary meeting, that the executive branch had requested an additional 3-percent cut across the state government.

With a state economy stuck in reverse and leaders like Evans openly pessimistic about the prospects for change, it appeared that the arts were once again in for what's been perceived as the yearly ritual of death by a thousand cuts--a seemingly endless series of reductions in arts funding.

So when the smoke cleared at the end of the budgetary process, how did total arts funding in North Carolina actually increase for fiscal 2003-04, by $377,000? And how did the formidable six-figure cut in grants get all but zeroed out?

The questions become even more compelling given the current context of state funding for the arts across the nation. Statisticians at the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA) project at this point that 61 percent of all state arts agencies will see budget cuts in fiscal 2003-04. An additional 16 percent will find their funding flat--which would place North Carolina among the decided minority of states where total arts funding actually got a boost.

In an on-line article for www.theartnewspaper.com, Randy Cohen, director of research at the national advocacy group Americans for the Arts, calculates a continuing national state arts funding freefall, from $355 million in fiscal 2002-03 to approximately $274 million for 2003-04. It's a 25-percent decrease in total state arts funding in one year. But Kimber Craine, communications director at NASAA, cautions that those figures don't tell the whole story.

Two-thirds of this year's cuts came in just three states. California, reeling from its own budgetary crisis, reduced arts funding from $18 million to $1 million--the minimum required to land matching federal funds. Michigan cut its $22 million arts and culture budget in half. And Florida cut its arts budget from $28 million to $5.9 million.

"For the rest, most of the cuts have been reasonable," Craine says. "State budgets are in the worst shape they've been in decades. In previous downturns in the economy we saw decreases in funding. Then we saw it come back in the past 10 years."

Still, when Terry Milner, executive director for the N.C. Theater Conference, learns that the Alabama Shakespeare Festival will lose more than $422,000 for an educational program that tours public schools, he quietly says, "That's why I became an actor: I saw a production of Twelfth Night they did in Andrews, Ala., in 1978."

The arts in North Carolina will suffer nothing like that this year. But before statewide sighs of relief are in order, it bears noting that 2003's increase in overall arts funding is entirely due to a one-time additional allocation to the N.C. Symphony. In the Greensboro regional meeting in March, Evans acknowledged that the symphony has been unable to pay its contracts for union musicians, in a year that has seen a number of orchestras across the country either founder or fold due to budget cuts.

Thus, the final figures: At the close of business in this year's General Assembly, the symphony gained $520,000 in non-recurring funds to pay its union musicians contract. The Museum of Art lost $79,824, and two positions, after initially being slated for no cuts in the governor's proposed budget. And the Arts Council lost $63,415, when it had been tagged to lose 10 times that much. At the final bell, most of the Arts Council's reductions came from office line items like printing, postage, transportation and contract services. In the end, its statewide grants programs were docked only $16,000--less than three percent of the $626,000 originally targeted for removal in March by Easley.

Net gain: $376,761 for the arts in North Carolina, checkered results which still constituted "definitely one of the 'good news' stories in the arts this year," according to Americans for the Arts communications director Lori Robishaw, who then added, "and we're thrilled for them."

But significant forces compelled the General Assembly to reject the governor's advice and, in a year of record deficits, put down the long knives and pull out the checkbook instead, at a time when much of the rest of the country opted for the other direction.

To get at the reasons why, I consulted a number of participants in the process: Evans; NCAC director Mary Regan; Karen Wells, executive director for the fledgling arts advocacy group Arts N.C.; State Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland), who headed an unusually active freshmen Democratic caucus this year; and Carin Savel, a legislative assistant who witnessed firsthand a 33-stop, five-day fact-finding mission the freshmen Democrats conducted across the state.

Their diverse responses bespeak different insights--and different vantage points--in a year which, just possibly, saw a fundamental change begin in the classic intersection of art and politics in North Carolina.

A number of participants agreed that a long tradition of state support for the arts fundamentally influenced the outcome. "It's not something we started doing in the last five years, 10 years or 20," notes Evans. "It's been here since the 1940s." In that decade, North Carolina established the first state symphony and the first state art museum; subsequent decades would see the first state school of the arts, the first department of cultural resources, the first urban arts program and other advances.

"So we weren't trying to convince legislators about something that they hadn't experienced in their own childhood, in public schools and across the state," Evans says. "I think most North Carolinians that are 55 or younger remember the N.C. Symphony playing in their public schools when they were growing up.

"As a result of that tradition, the leadership thinks it's important," Evans continues. "And it's not a partisan issue: People on both sides of the aisles think arts and history and libraries are an important part of our society."

Both Regan and Wells similarly cite strong relationships between the grassroots arts community and legislators in Raleigh. "The majority of the members of our legislature are much more attuned to what the arts are doing back in their home districts than most people would assume," notes Regan. "I don't think it was that difficult for the arts community to make the case, because I think what the arts community was saying to the legislature was very quickly recognized as being the facts."

Having "a very good story to tell," in Regan's words, also clearly influenced the turn of events on West Jones Street. Those supporting the arts had fresh statistics from the N.C. Arts Council, whose research proved that every dollar of grant support for the arts in turn generated an additional $21 in revenue going back into the local economy.

The statistics confirmed anecdotal evidence and folk wisdom the arts community had known for years. People who go to theater not only buy tickets; they eat out, park in municipal parking lots or garages, and discuss the show afterwards in bistros. Tourists going to see shows like The Lost Colony need lodging, food--and, frequently, one of those Virginia Dare dolls at the gift shop.

For the first time, legislators were learning that the arts were an industry, and a substantial economic engine. As Arts N.C. board of directors president David zum Brunnen put it in an address during Arts Day, a yearly day of arts activism in downtown Raleigh, "We are not part of the educational and economic problem in this state. We are part of the solution."

"For some of my colleagues, the economic numbers were important. And they were a surprise," recalls Rep. Glazier. "But the arts is a fairly large industry. It's one of the industries in the state that's doing well, in all areas of the state, and that, I think, was important to hear. For others, just understanding the quality of the programs was something they may not have experienced as much in their communities.

"I think it was the combination that played well," Glazier continues. "When budget times are tight, and governing is the art of allocating scarce resources, the economic argument is one that needs to be made. It's really easy for most of us to understand the cultural argument and the benefits of a vibrant state. It is probably less obvious but equally important to know that it's an economic driver."

As it turned out, the 16-person Democratic freshmen caucus had its role to play in the restored funding. After Easley's proposed budget came out, the group put restored arts funding on its top 10 list of priorities for the year.

But the most frequently cited influence on the outcome of state arts funding was grassroots citizen advocacy--thousands of phone calls, emails, letters and personal interactions with state legislators, both in Raleigh and back home in their respective districts. By all accounts, this advocacy accompanied every step of the budgetary process after the governor's initial proposal--up to and including the aftermath, a fall fact-finding tour conducted by the freshmen Democratic caucus across North Carolina. "Pretty much every one of the 33 stops in our five days, there was someone from the arts community talking," Glazier recalls. "And it wasn't just the people within the arts community. It was the beneficiaries of the arts, people who saw critical importance, and genuine economic as well as cultural value, of having a sustained and quality arts program in the state. They were thanking the legislators for their commitment in a tough budget year. Secondly, they were talking about the value of arts to their community, either as an economic engine or as part of the spirit and soul of that community. That was very important."

The arts community had become politically empowered, organized and activated. And source after source attributed it to one organization: Arts N.C.

The group "organized a very successful effort with the legislators and constituent groups all across the state. It was extraordinarily strong," says Regan. Evans attributes an arts constituency "as vocal as they've ever been since I've been here," to Arts N.C. as well. "Anytime legislators are able to understand how the arts affects their district and hear from individual people in their district, that's what's so important. That was part of Arts N.C.'s success as well."

The first glimmer of this organizing drive was visible in a Greensboro Arts N.C. meeting in March, just after Easley's budget had been announced. Clearly angered by what they viewed as disproportionate cuts in arts funding after an executive branch pledge not to take such action, the group was very keen to translate their concerns into action. As a result, zum Brunnen and Arts N.C. lobbyist Keith Martin conducted an impromptu seminar in Activism 101.

As county-by-county lists of legislators circulated through the crowd, Martin quizzed the assembled arts leaders. "We want you to tell us what you know about them. Are they patrons?... Season ticket holders? Do they support your museums or symphonies? Are they your neighbors? Do they go to your church? Do you belong to the same clubs and civic organizations? We found an arts advocate who carpools with the wife and children of an elected official--that is useful information. And pillow talk," Martin laughed, "is a recognized campaigning tactic."

While they were assembling a statewide database of practical political contacts and intelligence, Arts N.C. kept the statewide arts community focused on budgetary processes--and always focused on a positive response to it. Whenever an arts advocate saw an Arts N.C. e-mail with the words "CALL TO ACTION" in the subject line, they knew their voice was needed--in an e-mail, on the phone, in person. Each "call" centered on one specific act needed that week--from encouraging arts advocates to e-mail the governor, collect specific stories about how arts make a difference in their communities, or contact their legislator on a crucial vote about to take place.

Perhaps just as importantly, each communication encouraged fledgling activists: One praised "the impact of your significant advocacy work;" while another began, "You have been incredibly effective in the last three weeks through your passionate and articulate advocacy communications." "We have heard from General Assembly leadership that your calls and letters are being heard. Keep up the momentum," a third disclosed.

As a result, one legislator produced a stack of e-mails several inches thick--all on arts funding--during one budgetary committee meeting. A record number of participants--activists and legislators both--graced the tables and administrative offices during Arts Day. A group of people who had traditionally never demonstrated that much political power was taking its first steps toward showing up politically and effecting positive change.

"I think it's easier to organize a movement in conflict than it is in flush times," says Wells. "There's a complacency that sometimes comes with flush. There was this sense when [the governor's] cut came that there wasn't an understanding of the impact of the arts in all of these communities across the state. Cutting the grants program gave a clear example--a rallying cause. We could harness that point where people say, 'OK, this is it--had it, no more; we know how important this is and we're going to make sure you know it too.'"

What Wells, Evans and others termed the "facelessness" of the Arts Council's grants programs ultimately provided one of the coalition's greatest opportunities: to put a face--or hundreds of faces, actually--on the funds which are bread and butter for individual artists and organizations across the state. "Isn't seeing a joint responsibility?" Wells asks. "The responsibility of those in power to seek out and understand that face is also our responsibility to make that face known."

Wells looks back at the trials of the spring, the lifting of a community's voices to those in power, as a proactive break: "It gave us the opportunity to get organized--and the opportunity to realize that we could be effective."

The Arts Council is about to release a new statewide economic impact report on the arts. When it does, Arts N.C. will be gathering stories from across the state to accompany it. There are more workshops to help artists and arts advocates communicate better, and be better advocates.

There is also the daunting prospect of a proposed $433,291 reduction in arts funding currently on the books for fiscal 2004-05.

None of it fazes Wells on this crisp October morning. "I think there's an amazing time ahead of us as arts people," she concludes. "I think we're going to find a sense of personal and professional values that's higher, stronger and more publicly recognized than at any time in our history. It's the time for the arts to claim what has always been." EndBlock

For more information
Americans for the Arts
Washington Office
1000 Vermont Avenue NW, 6th Floor
Washington, DC 20005
202-371-2830
New York Office
One East 53rd Street
New York, NY 10022
212-223-2787
www.americansforthearts.org

Arts North Carolina
P.O. Box 1366
Raleigh, NC 27602-1366
919-834-1411
www.artsnc.org

National Assembly of State Arts Agencies
1029 Vermont Avenue, NW, 2nd Floor Washington, DC 20005 202-347-6352
www.nasaa-arts.org

North Carolina Arts Council
Department of Cultural Resources
Raleigh, NC 27699-4632
919-733-2111
www.ncarts.org

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