The arts aren't immune from the recession's reach | St. Louis Public Radio

The arts aren't immune from the recession's reach

Mar 3, 2009

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 3 2009 - During tough economic times, art can provide a much-needed escape from reality. But the arts can't escape the reality of a major recession.

The St. Louis arts community was shaken last month when the Missouri Department of Economic Development said it is withholding more than $5.5 million from the Missouri Arts Council as the state attempts to close a $261 million budget gap.

The council provides millions of dollars in annual grants to non-profit organizations - including a roster of well-known local arts institutions and broadcasters. For this fiscal year, the arts council will honor its commitments for previously approved annual and monthly grants.

But any grant applications submitted this year that haven't already been approved will not be funded. The council also is suspending smaller monthly "strategic grants," intended to stimulate growth and development of the arts, for the remainder of the fiscal year.

The arts council referred questions to the Department of Economic Development, where spokesman John Fougere said the council's prudent financial management put the agency in a position to absorb the cuts.

"The current budget situation presents the governor with a tough choice, and almost all agencies have to withhold money," Fougere said. "To the council's credit, it has built up a trust fund that's enough to cover the final two quarters of the fiscal year. We determined that the arts council could withstand the cuts slated for them better than other divisions in our department."

Many of the organizations that receive arts council funding were spared from making immediate changes to programming thanks to the  council's decision to dip into its trust fund established for a rainy day.

Thus, arts groups such as the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis won't be affected this fiscal year by the state's decision to withhold money, said Mark Bernstein, the theater's managing director. Bernstein said he will be watching closely to see what happens in the coming fiscal year with the state budget.

Likewise, it's too early to tell how the arts council cuts will impact the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra , according to spokesman Adam Crane.

The state move also won't hurt programming this year that is funded by the Missouri Humanities Council, a separate nonprofit organization whose grant funds are tucked into the arts council's budget. Less money will go into a state-managed trust fund, which might affect later funding available to the humanities council, but for now its programs that attempt to foster learning in families, schools, libraries and history organizations will be unaffected, explained Michael Bouman, its executive director.

Radio stations expecting arts council support will likely feel more of a financial crunch because their grants come from a special public broadcasting fund, and nothing has been held back from there for a rainy day. When the state rescinded the funding of both public television and radio, there was no additional money available for distribution.

These cuts are costing KWMU roughly $47,000, according to Tim Eby, the station's general manager. But because the station is having a good year thus far in member contributions and corporate sponsorship (which make up the majority of the budget), it hopes it will be able to absorb the cuts into the overall operating budget.

Missouri Arts Council money goes toward funding KWMU's program Cityscape, but Eby said the program's funding is secure for this year because of the reserve, adding that "there will not be anything changed from a programming standpoint or with staffing."

Still, Eby said it's hard to know how to plan for budgeting going forward.

Like KWMU, radio station KDHX also counts on arts council money for a small part of its budget -- less than 1 percent annually, according to Beverly Hacker, co-executive director of KDHX Community Media.

Though Hacker said the loss of state money won't affect programming during this fiscal cycle, the loss of support from the arts council means the station must scramble to figure out how to replace the funds. "We were counting on a fairly large check, and it not being there affects the timing of when we get things done," Hacker said.

The station is in the midst of a major fund-raising campaign and is looking at other grant sources.

"We're in a unique situation because we're mostly listener supported," she said. "We haven't seen the full impact of [the recession] yet, and we aren't sure what to expect. After a [pledge] drive in five weeks, we'll have a better idea."

Kevin Prufer and Wayne Miller, editors at Pleiades Press , say they are paying close attention to the arts council cuts -- though the move doesn't affect this year's publication runs of Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing, which publishes fiction, poetry, essays and reviews. The non-profit press this year relied on the council for roughly 25 percent of its cash flow, Prufer said. Significant money also comes from the University of Central Missouri and the National Endowment for the Arts.

"It's a pretty good part of our operating budget, so a future cut would result in us having to rethink the size of our publication," Prufer said.

Miller said that while the press received an unusually large grant from the NEA this year, there's no guarantee that revenue source will remain.

The freeze on arts council grants is not the only financial stress organizations face. KETC Channel 9 does not receive arts council support but has relied on other state funding to supplement the approximately 90 percent of its revenue that comes from individual donors. (The state recently withdrew funding for public television and radio stations.) Combined with a drop in member and underwriting support, the result is a major budget shortfall for KETC.

The station responded by eliminating six positions and reducing the hours of a seventh position, according to Kay Porter, KETC's director of marketing. Staff members are taking a 5 percent across-the-board salary reduction, and the station's president, Jack Galmiche, took a 10 percent cut. The reductions still aren't enough to make up for the shortfall, Porter said.

"We're optimistic that the community will respond and we'll make this up, but it was a definite blow," Porter said.