25 Feb Budget Cuts Target Arts, Schools

February 25, 2010

By: Tyler Whitley and Zachary Reid
Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Arts groups are fighting back against a proposal by the House Appropriations Committee to eliminate state funding for the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

At stake is a state appropriation of about $4.4 million in each of the next two fiscal years to fund the arts agency, which distributes grants to hundreds of arts groups around the state, including the Richmond Symphony, Richmond Ballet, Theater IV and the Visual Arts Center.

Hundreds of supporters, some dressed in costumes, were expected to descend on the Capitol today, as legislators in the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate debate the merits of budget bills adopted by their chamber’s budget committee.

The message: Art not only educates, it helps the economy.

The House proposal would cut off half of the funding in the budge t year beginning July 1 and eliminate it altogether in fiscal 2012. The agency began in 1968.

The agency also is slated to receive $1 million in federal funds in the coming year, including $300,000 from the federal stimulus package, said Peggy Baggett, the longtime executive director. The federal money is dependent on the state money, she said.

The Senate Finance Committee kept the appropriation, so funding the agency is likely to be the subject of negotiation between House and Senate budget-writers.

Del. M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said no one wanted to eliminate the funding, but it was a matter of priorities.

"This was a tough decision," he said. "Do you unfreeze Medicaid waivers [or fund the arts]?"

The House committee voted to unfreeze the waivers, which help mentally disabled people stay in their homes, rather than in institutions.

Both chambers have been wrestling with a $4 billion budget deficit, resulting from a decline in tax revenues caused by the recession.

Tatjana F. Beylotte, executive director of the 1708 Gallery and a former education coordinator for the arts commission, said, "I know every agency has to make cuts in times like these, but to completely kill an agency, that’s a shock."

The art gallery is receiving $11,135 from the arts commission.

Janet Krogman, director of education at Richmond CenterStage, said it really is a two-part cut, because funding for schools also is being reduced.

"Sometimes I think it’s hard for the people who make policy to understand how children best learn," she added.

"It’s not always bes t to stand in front of the room and lecture. Sometimes students need to get up and move around and be engaged. They need to meet artists and get hands-on training, and this kind of funding has helped provide that."

Phil Whiteway, of Theatre IV and Barksdale Theatre, said the two theaters together would lose about $90,000 each, plus an additional $40,000 that goes to statewide sponsors of a school instructional tour that serves about 400,000 students.

"Of course, this and every agency should share in statewide reductions, and the [arts commission] already has been cut by 30 percent," Whiteway said.

He noted that when Altria was being wooed to come to the Richmond area, "arts leaders were placed front and center because Altria made it clear that they were interested in relocating to Richmond only if the city had a strong and vibrant arts and cultural scene."

Keith Martin, managing director of the Richmond Ballet, said the arts commission provides touring subsidies to the ballet. It receives about $97,000 a year.

"The loss of [that] support . . . will undo decades of progress in making the arts accessible to all our citizens," Martin said.

In addition to the state and federal aid, the arts agencies rely on ticket sales and philanthropic contributions. But gifts are down because of the economy, Baggett said.

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