If North Carolina's legislative process continues unimpeded, arts groups around the state will face cuts of 8 to 22 percent from the level of current grants. Some of the impact would be visible: Mallarme Chamber Players reduces its concert season. Manbites Dog Theater loses funds for one of its shows. American Dance Festival reconsiders the ambition of its programming.
But the most devastating changes will likely be invisible. Who will notice when 12 at-risk children, who'd begun studying classical music with professionals, are turned away from Raleigh's Community Music School in 2014?
These are all likely outcomes from the levels of arts funding the House and Senate have proposed in their separate biennial budgets. The Senate's version, released in May, calls for a $1.28 million reduction in grants to arts organizations statewide, along with $900,000 in cuts from the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) and $500,000 taken from staffing at the North Carolina Arts Council (NCAC). In the House's version, released on Friday, NCAC loses a third of its staff through a $1 million reduction in administration, and cuts about $457,000 from statewide grants.
"The Senate had a far more aggressive position for tax reform than the House, and as a consequence they were trying to dial back a lot more spending to offset the reduction in revenue they anticipated," said NCMA Chief Deputy Director Caterri Woodrum. "Each of these budget proposals reflects very different perspectives on tax reform."
Proposed funding cuts to NCAC and NCMA in the two budgets total between $1.45 and $2.68 million. There's no knowing what the final bill will be before a conference committee reconciles the two versions.
The only winner so far is the North Carolina Symphony, which received no budget cuts and an extra $3 million for a challenge grant in both budgets.
Such widespread cuts will hit an arts community already coping with a series of budget cuts in recent years.
In the past two years, Artspace, a Raleigh nonprofit, has seen its direct funding from NCAC decrease by 28 percent. If the cuts called for by the Senate are made proportionally, it stands to lose 44 percent of the NCAC funding it had in 2010.
American Dance Festival has encountered little change in its allocations in recent years. A proportional reduction, however, would represent a 35 percent cut from its 2010 support.
The smaller the companies we examined, the more drastic the reductions. If the Senate scenario becomes law, Manbites Dog Theater would experience a 54 percent cut from its highest NCAC funding level in 2008, and Mallarmé Chamber Players would take a 69 percent cut from its highest level of funding in 2009.
Recent reductions already have had a significant impact on regional organizations.
"We had to eliminate our summer music camp, place a freeze of faculty salaries and place a strict cap on enrollment, not to exceed 100 students," says Linda Frenette, executive director of Community Music School. "We haven't purchased any new instruments, and a lot of necessities are not being acquired."
Frenette says her program is "the last resort" for her disadvantaged students: "We charge a dollar per lesson—and some can't even pay that. There's no option for them in music if we don't exist."
Because of prior cuts, Mallarmé has already been forced reduce its school initiative, Mallarmé Immersion into Art, from four hours a week to one in two Durham schools.
"We were hoping to bring the program into other schools, but there are no resources to do it at this point," says artistic director Suzanne Rousso.
In the Senate scenario, NCMA will cut four staff positions in the coming year, and another 12 positions in 2014. "Ninety-six percent of our state appropriation goes to salaries," says Woodrum. "If that's cut, we're reducing people. There's no other option."
A number of arts organizations remain apprehensive that further funding cuts to granting entities may result in the loss of entire programs. Administrators at Artspace and Visual Arts Exchange (VAE) cited grants programs no longer in existence that once provided them with substantial support. "A 22 percent cut is easy compared to programs that just go away," says VAE executive director Sarah Powers.
Life is no easier at those granting institutions. Eleanor Oakley at United Arts has seen a 20 percent drop in NCAC funding since 2010 and expects another 15 to 20 percent reduction. Looking at 2013–14, she admits, "We're to the point where we're having to make really hard decisions."
If corporations have largely turned the corner on the recent economic crisis, it isn't showing in their philanthropy.
"There's been no upturn," Oakley observes. "So many of our funders have completely changed their focus in giving. Or the priorities have changed completely for a number of higher-amount sponsors, which moves us from their sphere. It's catastrophic."
Jodee Nimerichter, executive director at American Dance Festival, observes that foundation funding "is flat," while Durham Arts Council's Sherry DeVries calls the circumstance "like a triple whammy."
Oakley observes "there's nowhere to go" to make up losses from sponsors—and that the smallest arts organizations are usually hit the worst.
"They can't compete with the amount of marketing that the biggest groups have," she says, adding that the 30 groups United Arts supports have a total audience of 1.2 million—"bigger than some of the large groups in the area."
For DeVries at Durham Arts Council, the 44 percent cut in state support for Durham County nonprofits since 2008 flies in the face of reason.
"Arts and culture nonprofits generate $125 million in economic activity per year," she says. "Of that we generate $5.3 million in revenue that goes back to the state. If I was a legislator, why would I want to cripple an investment returning $15 for every dollar I invest?"
Having already economized and optimized their way through previous cuts, regional groups are finding few places left to trim. "It'll come out of the amount of services we can provide," says Mallarmé's Rousso. "Instead of six concerts in a year, we might have five."
"We always say, 'It's theater—we'll figure out a way,'" says Edward Hunt, managing director at Manbites Dog Theater. "But this cut is half the cost of one of our shows. We might reduce the number of shows in a season, or do productions with smaller casts or smaller artist payments."
At Raleigh's Artspace, outreach initiatives will be closely scrutinized. A $12,000 cut in two years could eliminate a 10-week residency program, or cut a summer arts camp for 40 underprivileged students.
Too easily lost in the blur of programs under siege are the people at NCAC who administer them. Four to eight positions will be cut from the staff of 25 under the new budget.
One statewide program now in jeopardy is the SmART Initiative, a pilot program in arts-driven economic development. One of its first projects, a park devoted to conserving 32 works by the late whirligig builder Vollis Simpson, opens this August in Wilson. Its presence already has stimulated a $2 million downtown residential and retail project, with four projects totaling $25 million slated for the next three to four years, according to Wilson businessman Henry Walston. Durham is in the early phases of its own SmART project.
As the state retreats from public arts support, one local government may try to take up the slack. The City of Raleigh Arts Commission has proposed a funding increase from city government for the upcoming fiscal year. Raising the city's per capita funding rate for the arts from $4.50 to $5 would increase the commission's budget from $1.5 to $1.87 million—which still would leave a deficit of $354,000 against current grant requests. VAE's Powers calls the increase crucial.
"Raleigh has seen the dramatic effects of the arts on economic development," she says. "In this scary situation, we need to be protective of the arts in Raleigh."
But who, if anyone, will protect artists in other North Carolina communities?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Cutting the edge off art."