Call last Thursday, April 21, the morning we almost lost Folkmoot, the 10-day international folk festival that has drawn participants by the thousands—and millions of tourism dollars—to the mountains each summer for the past 28 years.
And even if the North Carolina Symphony gained $1.5 million in funding (another dramatic development, whose implications were still unfolding as we went to press), it was also nearly forced that morning to ditch not only a season of prominent guest artists but its celebrated conductor, Grant Llewellyn, while the American Dance Festival briefly contemplated its last year of operations in Durham.
Such shocking cuts to such worthy institutions would have been the consequence of seven lines of legislative text, which an unnamed chairman in the state House of Representatives tried to slip into next year's budget. If the amendment had gone unnoticed, it would have made a drastic change in the way hundreds of arts organizations across the state would be permitted to do business in the coming year.
After approving a preliminary budget the week before (see "On Arts Day, advocates visit the General Assembly ... and get cut," April 20)—and apparently getting an earful from their constituents about it ever since—the Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government, the House group specifically tasked with funding the arts in North Carolina, met last Thursday morning in Room 1425 at the General Assembly. Only one item was on the agenda: review of—and adjustments to—the reductions they'd made in the budgets and special provisions they'd submitted the previous week.
A little over an hour into the meeting, a document marked "H200-ALG-8 [v.6]" circulated among subcommittee members and attendees. Toward the bottom of its fourth page, the following words appeared:
"STATE ARTS FUNDING
SECTION #. The Department of Cultural Resources shall adopt policies to ensure that organizations receiving grants under any of the following programs must award grants giving a preference to local artists and North Carolina vendors:
(1) The Grassroots Arts Program.
(2) The Basic Grants Program.
(3) Any other state-funded grants program administered by the Department."
A murmur went through the crowd as a staffer read the proposed amendment. When Rep. Alma Adams, D-Guilford, asked where the amendment came from, subcommittee Chairman George Cleveland, R-Onslow, uncomfortably replied, "the full chairs," a reference to the chairpersons of the full appropriations committee.
When Adams asked for its rationale, Cleveland paused and said, "It appears that cultural organizations were bringing in people in from surrounding states and financially supporting them."
Adams asked several times what sort of feedback the amendment had received from the agency it would affect, but her questions went unanswered.
After Cleveland interpreted the text as "not preventing [organizations] from bringing in out-of-state or national organizations—it's just saying you'd better have a nice rationale for doing it," Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, asked Mary Regan, executive director of the North Carolina Arts Council, to spell out the implications of the amendment.
After saying she'd never seen the proposed regulation before that moment, Regan concluded that if it passed, the Arts Council would no longer be able to fund "organizations that exist for the purpose of providing the citizens of North Carolina the opportunity to see and hear arts and artists that don't exist or live in North Carolina."
Regan then told the subcommittee that organizations such as Folkmoot would be defunded under the proposed amendment.
Along these lines, other likely victims of the proposed amendment would include:
- American Dance Festival, the second largest modern dance festival in the world, which presents a season of new commissioned works by New York and international dance companies each summer
- MerleFest, the much-loved festival that draws American roots musicians from across the country to Wilkes County every spring
- National Black Theater Festival, the yearly national gathering in Winston-Salem of the latest innovations in African-American theater
- North Carolina Symphony, whose season features a series of internationally recognized guest artists—and whose conductor, Grant Llewellyn, is a citizen of Wales who regularly travels here to work with the group
- In addition, organizations like PlayMakers Repertory Company, Triad Stage, Burning Coal Theatre and Manbites Dog Theater would presumably no longer be able to cast actors or employ guest directors or designers from outside North Carolina.
Regan then cited a further unintended consequence of the proposed measure: a backlash against our own artists. "For us to appear to be shutting our programs down at the border," she said, "is ultimately going to hurt our local artists when they try to travel outside our state."
After the subcommittee initially approved the amendment—apparently a procedural necessity—it was repealed Thursday afternoon.
The House's full appropriations committee will now take the reports from all of the subcommittees and combine them into a final version of a proposed budget for 2011–12, beginning this week.
At every step in the process until the final version is passed, amendments—like the one here—may be introduced. Stay tuned.