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State cuts hit home for arts community

March 5, 2011
By JESSICA COLLIER, Enterprise Staff Writer

Arts funding seems almost like an afterthought in the 101-page briefing book on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's 2011-12 proposed budget. The volume lumps the arts in with significant education reforms and devotes a mere two paragraphs to the cuts.

But to many people in the local arts community, the $4 million cut to the New York State Council on the Arts and individual arts grants proposed in Cuomo's budget mean a lot.

At Pendragon Theatre in Saranac Lake, they are expecting cuts to the $10,000 to $12,000 in grants they normally receive.

Article Photos

Actor Mark Mocahbee woos his character’s mistress in an Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts performance of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” performed in parks and outdoor areas across the Adirondacks last summer.
(Enterprise file photo — Jessica Collier)

"That's a noticeable thing to us," said theatre co-founder Bob Pettee.

He said in small arts organizations like his, which is large compared to most in the area, there isn't much room to cut. It often translates to things like putting off raises or bonuses for another year, or hiring fewer seasonal workers, or not getting health insurance.

"It almost always comes out of the backs of the people, one way or another," Pettee said. "You can't buck the electric company. Our oil company is very kind to us, but ultimately, they need to be paid too ... You can't mess with those people, so it always comes down to the people who are in the trenches, as it were."

And it's not just the arts funding cuts that are hurting local groups. Pendragon does a lot of work with local schools and normally has school groups travel long distances to see shows it puts on. But with significant school funding cuts in the current state budget and proposed for next year, schools are much more reluctant to spend resources, like money to bus kids to a theatre, on the arts.

Which is unfortunate, Pettee said, because contact with the arts has proven time and time again to increase a student's capacity for critical thinking and problem solving, and often correlates to better test scores.

Pettee said it bothers him that people think of the arts as an extra, an add-on that can be discarded when belts are tightened.

"I think there's a mentality that sort of like does not perceive the arts as a vital interest," Pettee said. "I mean, I think that's really very sad. I think that's a commentary on where we are in the country, in a way, that there are certain things that are not taken as priority. I'm not suggesting that other things should be cut traumatically so the arts can be funded fully. Everybody's got to take their share, but the arts are a thing that make an unbelievable difference in the quality of people's lives. And not having them, or having less of them, or having them diminished, I think, is a very dangerous thing to the way people think, live, can be challenged. I think it's a dreadful thing, educationally."

This isn't the first time the arts have been cut. Caroline Thompson, executive director for the Arts Council for the Northern Adirondacks, said there has been a more than 40-percent drop in state arts funding over the last three years.

The Westport-based ACNA is one of a number of regional arts centers set up in the 1970s to make sure that small-town arts organizations would get funding and wouldn't be competing against huge institutions like the Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They distribute a series of grants from NYSCA to smaller arts and humanities organizations like theaters, museums and historic groups.

In 2009, ACNA was able to distribute about $38,000 to 23 arts and humanities organizations, but this year, that number has been cut down to $28,000 to 15 groups. (This year's grants are set to be announced Fri., Feb. 11 at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts.)

"Our message is we want to get cut fairly," Thompson said. "We have not been."

The state agencies themselves are in line to lose 10 percent of their funding, which is what NYSCA was cut, but aid to localities was mostly cut by 2 to 4 percent. But the grants ACNA administers, which are considered local aid, were decreased by 10 percent, Thompson said.

"It's only $2.8 million that we're asking to be put back," Thompson said. "I mean, that's not even a speck in the state budget. That's not even a speck, compared to how many billion?"

At least there's enough to keep going for now. The Troy-based New York State Theatre Institute shut down in December in part because the state took away more than half of its funding in the current fiscal year.

But Thompson said if things don't change sometime soon, artists and humanities organizations will start dropping.

"Ultimately, if they cut us much more, people are going to say, 'I just can't give any more; I just can't do it,'" Thompson said.

She notes that her own staff at ACNA was up to five workers about 10 years ago, but she had to drop her last staff member last year and is now the only paid employee.

The Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce usually gets an ACNA grant to fund a summer concert series in Berkeley Green, but it was one of the organizations that was rejected this year due to decreased funding. It also missed out two years ago.

"When we received the letter, we understand there's x number of applications and y number of dollars going out," said SLACC Executive Director Sylvie Nelson. "They have to make hard decisions, and unfortunately we were one of those hard decisions."

Nelson said her organization is trying to put together a scaled-down version of the concert series funded mostly by business sponsors. They have committed to two concerts so far - a Fourth of July concert and the Lake Placid Sinfonietta on July 16, both in Riverside Park - but are still trying to work on setting up a semi-regular Thursday night concert series in Berkeley Green.

The Lake Placid Center for the Arts has also had to get creative in times of tough budgeting. Spokeswoman Kim Andresen said the LPCA relies heavily on state funding and grants, and since that money has been drying up over the last few years, her organization has had to do some restructuring.

"We've restructured most staff members' positions," Andresen said. "Everybody's taking on a little bit more. Which is fine; we can handle it, but we are a small staff for everything we do."

The LPCA staff is trying to maximize individual donations and event attendance by trying new things to reach out to new audiences. They're running National Geographic films about climbing instead of foreign films, for instance, and they're selling wine and beer at some adult performances.

They're also partnering with businesses and other area arts organizations, like Pendragon and the Lake Placid Sinfonietta, on events, performances, and even things like marketing, Andresen said.

"I think everybody used to be more of their own satellite organization, but now we work together so everybody in the community can have access to art programming," Andresen said.

The Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts, another regional arts center based in Blue Mountain Lake, has managed to grow significantly over the last few years, despite less state funding. Executive Director Stephen Svoboda said cuts to arts can hurt the region's economy.

"I think art should be funded because art is art," Svoboda said. "But also it has a huge cultural and economic impact, especially in an area like ours where so much of our economy is nonprofit based. And things like museums, they receive arts funding. The arts centers, the school, all of them are receiving funding in that category, and so what happens is when we get those cuts now we start to really cut into our nonprofit sector."

Arts organizations like his are an economic driver, Svoboda said, because they bring in visitors and they often lead to both tourists and locals alike spending money on things like gas, meals and souvenirs.

Plus, the organizations are used to operating on a shoestring budget, so they make every dollar count.

"What we always say is if you give us a dollar, we'll turn it into 10," Svoboda said. "When you look at the ripple effect of where that dollar is spent, you actually see a much bigger impact in the community."

And a strong arts community can also draw new residents to an area and keep them here. ACNA board President Pete Seward said when he moved to Lake Placid, he did so because of the landscape, but he was pleased to find after arriving that the Tri-Lakes, especially Saranac Lake, has such a strong arts community.

The arts add to the fabric of a community, making it a more liveable place, Seward said.

"We can't simply all be a community of people going home to watch TV," Seward said. "People are looking for engagement, and arts are one way of building an identity with the community."

Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 25 or



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