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Arts an easy target as states cut budgets

Arts an easy target as states cut budgets

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By DAVID TWIDDY

Associated Press

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Ben Ahlvers is a full-time arts education coordinator, but his passion is with the fanciful creatures, human figures and oversized hammers he fashions from clay.

The nationally recognized ceramic artist was chosen to receive a fellowship from the Kansas Arts Commission to attend an artist residency in Montana. But after Kansas officials cut the commission's budget at midyear by $300,000, he didn't receive the $1,000 check.

"They were still going to have a reception, and I joked to somebody that I was going to go and eat $1,000 worth of finger food," said Ahlvers, 35, who said he and his wife had to live off their credit cards and sell more of his artwork to fund the trip.

"The $1,000 would have made it a lot easier, and I wouldn't have had to fret as much," he said.

States across the country are slashing their arts funding for the second year in a row as they cope with falling tax revenues. Those cuts, which often happen during recessions, are a serious blow to arts agencies and individual dancers, painters and actors at a time when private donations are down and many art organizations are being more selective in what they produce.

Julie Britton, vice president of development for the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in Florida, said officials might have to skew away from avant-garde art designed to push boundaries in favor of things more certain to sell tickets.

"Part of our mission is to bring people things that are new," said Britton. "That's very difficult to do when you have to be risk-averse in this situation."

The Tampa Bay center's state grant is expected to be $25,000 or less this year, down from $200,000 a couple years ago.

The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies estimates that states reduced their arts funding an average of 7 percent in the fiscal year that began July 1. That average doubles to 14 percent when Minnesota is not included because the state almost tripled its art budget to $30.2 million, thanks to a new sales tax.

In financially strapped states such as Arizona, South Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, Louisiana and Florida, the reductions are steeper, 30 percent or more, forcing agencies to trim the amount or value of grants, shutter programs that provide arts education and lay off employees. In two states that haven't completed their annual budgets -- Pennsylvania and Connecticut -- lawmakers are considering eliminating their state arts agencies entirely.

States did get a boost this year in funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and some one-time job preservation grants through the federal stimulus bill. But administrators say the money won't make up for all the funding they've lost.

"It's really going to have a devastating effect," said Terry Scrogum, executive director of the Illinois Arts Council, which saw its budget fall 51 percent this year, to $7.8 million.

Overall, states contribute just 2 percent of the total annual pool of arts revenue in the U.S., according to Americans for the Arts. But arts advocates say organizations use those dollars to leverage donations from local governments, match federal funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and attract the private donations that make up the bulk of their annual budgets.

That private giving has also suffered during the recession. According to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, private donations to the arts decreased 6.4 percent between 2007 and 2008, the latest years available, and has likely fallen further this year.

The cuts in arts aren't universal. Besides Minnesota, a handful of other states, such as Oregon, New York and Texas, have seen increases, either because their economies are in better shape or because of one-time surges of new revenue.

The arts typically take a hit during recessions.

But arts agency leaders say legislatures make a mistake when they look at the arts as a luxury as opposed to a key source of jobs and community identity.

"I don't think any government entity in the United States has ever understood the true value of the arts in terms of economic development, arts education or in community revitalization," said Sue Weiner, executive director of the Georgia Council for the Arts.

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