Endgame for NY Arts Funding Coming Into View

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Only in New York can a state budget be passed “sort of.” At least that is the assessment of Norma Munn, chairperson of the New York City Arts Coalition, who doesn’t believe in the concept “sort of” and is something of an expert at sneering at it.

Not that you can blame her. Being an “arts advocate” in New York these days is about as rewarding as being a leftist in Salt Lake City — an uphill rock that rarely, if ever, sits at a plateau. She needs all the help that she can get.

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Trouble is, Munn doesn’t really want the help.

She told me quite bluntly recently that she believes if you publish anything — news, views or analysis — regarding the arts, whether you’re a blogger, a permanent or a freelance member of the staff of a newspaper, magazine or website — really, anything at all that gives off the remotest repertorial whiff — you’re never, ever to be considered an “arts advocate.” Thanks, but no thanks, she said — we don’t want you.

At a time when the arts, and especially arts funding, needs all the support that it can get, Munn basically would rather fight the good fight with diminished resources — and keep “journalists” out of the conversation, out of brainstorming, out of luck, out of time, out of favor, out of usefulness.

When asked directly whether she is engaging in a dangerous, disingenuous and counterproductive type of gatekeeping, Munn stated that “other” people in the arts-advocacy world felt this way, therefore she must defend the idea.

And no, she didn’t mean just me, although she included me in the disenfranchised category.

Well, my response is this: Let’s take it to the people, Norma.

Do you believe that if you publish anything — news, views or analysis — regarding the arts, whether as a blogger, as a permanent or freelance member of the staff of a newspaper, magazine or website — really, anything at all that gives off the remotest repertorial whiff — you’re never, ever to be considered an “arts advocate”?

Let us know.

Maybe Munn’s version of a Chinese wall is a symptom of her own exhaustion — few people in the arts advocacy world are fighting to sustain arts funding in New York in the 21st century, what with its bankrupt, legislatively dysfunctional Empire State, than she is. She is better than that, even if she doesn’t know it.

Anyway–

According to an email Munn sent to her constituents late last week, while the state legislature passed a “final spending bill” two weeks ago, and while “numerous items were being vetoed by Gov. Paterson over the past few days” (wasn’t it nearly 6,700 line items?), it appears the appropriation for the New York State Council on the Arts has now been “sort of” finalized — set at $35.15 million, plus another $1.65 million added to the “grants portion.”

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Specifically, she wrote:

The dollar amount for NYSCA in the spending bill was $35.150 million for grants funding. That is the amount Gov. Paterson put in his original budget in January, and it is $6.5 million less than the final budget for last year. This is the amount that I have been told is final for NYSCA regardless of the remaining confusion over other aspects of the budget.

There was an additional $1.65 million restored to the grants portion for NYSCA, which was vetoed by the Governor. (It is my understanding that he could not alter or veto any part of the $35.150 million, as that was the amount in his original budget. He could only veto additions or alterations to his budget.)

The second decrease of $10 million that Gov. Paterson asked for in late April was rejected by the legislature.

Summary: We missed the worst of the proposed cut, but $35.150 million is nothing to celebrate.

On this last point, of course, she is quite right. What a shame, though, that Munn rather play gatekeeper and make sure that Munn, and only those Munn so designates, are considered to be New York “arts advocates.” That helps no one. You get what you give.

Judith K. Weiner, executive director of NYS Arts, meanwhile, issued her own memorandum to her own constituency last week. She wrote:

You may recall that the arts are in the Education, Labor and Family Assistance bill, (A9703C/S6603B) one of the last to be negotiated because the other cuts had already been approved in the weekly extenders. This legislative appropriation effectively restored most of the cut that was on the table for the arts, reducing a 40% cut to about 15% or $6 million. The Governor established a 40% cut to the arts when he added another $10 million cut in his Gap Closing Plan to the initial $6.5 million cut in his Executive budget.

Here are the numbers in the Legislative appropriation: $35,150,000 + a legislative add of $1,613,000 = $36,763,000. This bill is sitting on the Governor’s desk awaiting his signature.

The Governor could exercise his power of veto. To override a veto by the Governor, it seems that the Senate will need 10 Republicans…..and that is a long shot. The Assembly does have the votes for an override.

However, it appears that anything in the Legislature’s bill that was recommended in the Gov’s Executive budget (which was a reduction of $6.5 million for the arts) automatically becomes law now that it has passed both Houses. Whether that would also include the legislative restoration of the additional $1.613 to the $35.150 million is in question and may be unlikely.

My own sources confirm that the $36.763 million number for NYSCA is likely the final number. As Munn points out, it’s nothing to celebrate — but, then again, that’s a poor approach: Is it as draconian as the 40 percent funding cut that Gov. Paterson had proposed earlier this year?

More than that, isn’t now the time to start thinking ahead — not only about midyear cuts (which are more than likely, I would wager), but about next year’s NYSCA funding, which may very well drop yet again, and about the crisis-to-crisis mentality of the arts nonprofit business model in New York.

It’s time for Munn is stop drawing up drawbridges and stop mowing down anyone threatening to cross her moat. Why? Because arts advocacy isn’t just about one person, position, job or organization. We’re in the midst of a sea change. It’s a shame that certain people would rather drown.