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June 25, 2008

Art therapy - Why is the list of arts groups funded by the mayor’s budget so utterly predictable?

A bunch of pissed-off people waited in line to sign up to address the Metro Council last week, at the final public hearing on the mayor’s proposed budget. Few council members bothered to attend. The ones who were present asked perfunctory questions of the representatives of arts agencies standing to lose between 30 and 100 percent of their Metro allocations this year. 

When the proposed budget was announced late last month, many past recipients — like Juneteenth Legacy Theatre, Kentucky Homefront and the Arts Council of Louisville — were shocked to learn they no longer have a seat at the table, nor would they get the crumbs they’ve received in years past. 

So what’s going on here? Poor planning and a bad process, it appears. 

The total recommended appropriation for External Agencies is around $9 million, with approximately $1 million to be split among 26 arts programs. Last year, $1.58 million in the arts category was divvied up among 40 recipients. Lest your eyes glaze over at the mention of figures, let’s cut to the chase: The little guys and gals are feeling the pinch. Diversity in arts funding appears to be a thing of the past.

Chad Carlton, spokesperson for the mayor, assured me that Mayor Jerry Abramson is committed to helping “the little guys” in the arts because he realizes their importance. However, the proposed budget would give the lion’s share of arts funds to five entities: Actors’ Theatre of Louisville ($59,400), Greater Louisville Fund for the Arts ($280,000), Louisville Orchestra ($180,000), Kentucky Public Radio ($75,000) and the Partnership for a Creative Economy ($120,000). That’s 69 percent of the entire budget to five organizations, two of which do not create art.  

There are three panels of nine members each that decide how the External Agencies money is distributed. Three members are from the administration, three are Metro Council members and three are citizens. One panel is for the arts, one for social services and one for business organizations. No funds went to the last group this year. 

Here is how this process works: A call goes out for proposals, which are evaluated in a “balancing act” to give to as many as possible without “slicing the bread so thin as to have no impact,” according to Carlton. The mayor has little say in the allocation. In the past five years, the council has increased proposed allocations to certain organizations. It remains to be seen whether they will do so again. After all, times are hard. 

At the June 18 hearing, arts representatives had the chance to plead for funding. John Gage, of the Kentucky Theatre Project (which produces Kentucky Homefront), had asked for $13,000 but said he would be content to be reinstated at $7,500 (from 0 to around 60 percent of his original request). He said he just wants an even playing field. 

courtesy of JUNETEENTH LEGACY THEATRE: Lorna Littleway of Juneteenth Legacy Theatre
courtesy of JUNETEENTH LEGACY THEATRE: Lorna Littleway of Juneteenth Legacy Theatre

Lorna Littleway said that after 9 years, Juneteenth should be able to count on funding from the city. She said she wonders how to tell other funding organizations (like the NEA) that Kentucky’s only black theater gets no support from its own city. Cut from $15,000 to zero, Littleway said she couldn’t plan for next year. She also can’t count on support from other local agencies. 

But it’s not just the “little guys” who are hurting. The Louisville Orchestra, a cornerstone organization, supports other necessary arts like the ballet and opera. Now, they have tough decisions about what programs they’ll have to cut. The “Making Music” program for 4th graders will probably have to go, according to Brad Stoecker, orchestra CEO, because it doesn’t generate income. But board chair Tom Noland told the council, “It’s been proven that (children’s) exposure to classical music increased test performance and the ability to hold a job, and that means prosperity for our region.” He added, “The ways in which this area can grow are in those areas where we are already strong. We may not have major league players, but we have major league arts.” 

The arts are vital to our city’s economic health. For every dollar spent on a theater ticket, a city gets $5-7 more in economic value, according to Ben Cameron, Arts Program Director for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. 

“Major vibrant communities are characterized by a creative culture,” he said.