DESPERATION ROW: Late afternoon at the Tucson Pima Arts Council, and an arts writer's idle dream seemed to be coming true.
I was the lone reporter in a room where the heads of most of Tucson's powerhouse arts groups and nonprofits of an intellectual bent had assembled for an "arts advocacy meeting." On the roll call were the directors, or the number-two folks at least, of the Tucson Museum of Art, the Center for Creative Photography, The Arizona Theatre Company, UA Poetry Center, Tucson Jazz Society, Ballet Arizona, Tucson Boys Chorus, Arizona Historical Society, Tucson Botanical Gardens, Tohono Chul and on and on.
And nearly all of them wanted to talk to me.
While it's an odd situation for a reporter to be so much in demand, I tried not to feel too flattered. The arts leaders are desperate to get the word out to the public that they're being hit, and hit hard, by the impending massive cuts in public funding. Shelley Cohn, head of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, was there to tell them that observers of the raucous budget proceedings in Washington expect the National Endowment for the Arts to take a hit of some $68 million. The old allotment was $167 million; the new one will probably be $99 million. Dan Schilling, director of the Arizona Humanities Council, said the National Endowment for the Humanities will probably come through at $110 million, representing a 36 percent budget cut.
What does Tucson stand to lose specifically, I asked the group at large. Here are a few of their answers:
Nancy Lutz, assistant director of the Center for Creative Photography, had a ready response. "The Center received $169,000 in three years from the NEA for the care of its collections, for providing access to school groups. It's the same for the other museums. This money pays for the real nuts-and-bolts museum work."
Robert Yassin, director of the Tucson Museum of Art, agreed. Private corporate backers can often be persuaded to kick in for a glamorous exhibition, he said; they're not too interested in sponsoring behind-the-scenes archival work. And, he said, NEA money is attractive seed money that can draw more money from corporate donors. A museum looks to potential donors like it's doing something right if it's already jumped over the NEA hurdles.
Jessica L. Andrews, new managing director of the Arizona Theatre Company, said, "We used to be able to apply for seasonal support. Now it's all about choosing something within the season that will be competitive."
A Ballet Arizona rep explained that while her troupe has not received NEA money, it's enjoyed working with nationally known choreographers who've received individual NEA fellowships. Most of those direct grants to artists have now gone by the wayside.
Under the tightened-up rules of the leaner, meaner NEA and NEH, arts groups and museums will find themselves competing with each other for diminishing dollars. And smaller cities like Tucson will be at a distinct disadvantage. Part of the original justification for both the NEA and the NEH was to bring the arts and humanities to all America, from Carnegie Hall in New York to the public library in Willcox. But new rules require grant recipients to be doing projects of regional and national significance.
"Back in Washington, they say that Philadelphia is national, we're local," Schilling said. "Now they'll tell you a project about Father Kino is local."
An increasingly conservative Congress is inclined to fund conservative projects. For instance, said Schilling, congressional reps see NEH grants that pay to send a scholar to, say, Peru for two years of research as junkets. They like scholarly projects bent on preserving the artifacts of the past; what they don't like is cutting-edge research. That trend at the NEH corresponds to the new mentality at the NEA, where under the new regime grants will be given to community orchestras, say, to play old music, not to a young composer to create new music.
What to do? The new strategy propounded by Dian Magie, head of TPAC, is this: Figure out new places to get arts money (read: the private sector). Lobby your legislators. And if arts groups can't persuade Tucsonans that arts matter to people's hearts and minds, she said, they've got to demonstrate the arts matter to the city's pocketbook. You'll be hearing more, much more, in the coming months about the economic impact of the arts.
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