Cutting it out

Working for a nonprofit organization can be gratifying, and it can also be hellish. Midsized groups often have just one employee who works like a dervish, spinning around the office as an accountant, promo person, party planner, membership coordinator, office administrator and janitor. The average day involves managing bill collectors, buying toilet paper and training a revolving group of volunteers. During downtime, you’re supposed to carry out the duties you were hired to perform, the stuff that’s actually supposed to be gratifying. Sure, there are rewards, like when your paycheck doesn’t bounce. Like when you get a paycheck, even if it barely covers your own bills.

That’s why Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s freeze on $7.5 million in arts and cultural funding, promised to hundreds of agencies, seems so harsh. There’s little optomism the grants will be reinstated.

Naturally, you worry about the little grasroots guys first. “It’s bake sale time” — that’s what one staffer called it. But the big shops are in trouble too: The Detroit Institute of Arts isn’t getting its check for $1.5 million. A couple dozen cookies aren’t going to pay for that new Vermont marble.

In the seventh month of the grant year, local groups are scrambling to figure out how to make up for the shortfall, and it may include letting staff go, canceling programming, shortening hours of operation or, in the worst of circumstances, closing indefinitely.

This year the state received 353 applications, funding 300 of those. Wayne County in particular, has been hit hard. Some 56 grants were given to the county, according to John Bracey, executive director of Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, which administers the arts funding. “In 2006, we gave just over $10 million, total, in Michigan. Wayne County alone received $4 million, 40 percent of Michigan’s funding.”

The Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs has an “anchor organizations” program that designates major institutions. In 2007 the state promised to fund a dozen of those in Wayne County. Like the smaller groups, several institutions have received about a third, if any, of the money.

  • Detroit Institute of Arts received none of its $1,485,600 grant
  • Detroit Symphony Orchestra received $177,200 of $506,300
  • Michigan Opera Theatre received $131,100 of $374,500
  • Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History received $31,700 of $89,400
  • Detroit Science Center received $23,100 of $65,000
  • Detroit Historical Society received nothing of its $40,000 grant
  • Music Hall received $14,200 of $40,000
  • College for Creative Studies received nothing of its $39,800 grant
  • Mosaic Youth Theatre received $11,900 of $32,500
  • Sphinx Organization received $11,900 of $32,500
  • Detroit Repertory Theatre received $7,900 of $21,500
  • Arab American National Museum received $7,900 of its $21,500 grant

It’s a nightmare for those who have already spent the money they thought was coming to them. Pam Wise is executive director of Rebirth Inc., a Detroit-based nonprofit organization promoting jazz musicians since 1978. Wise says, “One of our pet programs brings Michigan-born musicians who have become internationally known back to do radio performances. We’ve been doing that for the past 10 years. Without this funding, we had to cancel an artist’s performance even though we had already bought airline tickets for him. We’ve had to cancel the rest of the broadcasts too.”

Mary Fortuna, exhibitions director for Rochester’s Paint Creek Center for the Arts, says the gallery hopes to partner with corporate and business sponsors: “While we have other sources of income, as any nonprofit should — you can never count entirely on MCACA funding to sustain your whole program — it takes a lot of adjusting to make up two-thirds of an anticipated chunk of funding.”

The situation’s serious at Jewish Ensemble Theatre in West Bloomfield. Managing director Christopher Bremer says his group is losing $13,000: “That is about a month’s salary for the office staff here, so we’ll probably lay people off. ... These are people’s lives. What’s worse is they are the ones who have the passion.”

“You start to wonder whether it’s worth it, as a professional, especially when you have a wife and kids,” he says.

But there can be no cutbacks for Detroit Repertory Theatre. Staff is already at a bare minimum. Founder Bruce Millan says there is only “die.”

“That money was a pittance compared to what we need. It’s just a broken promise. But all of this is a smoke screen. There has been a lack of responsibility on the part of the state Senate. The governor is covering what they failed to do. To go out and say the governor is terrible for what she is doing, listen, this whole crisis can be put at the door of the Republican Senate. It’s a refusal to be responsible and make up for the taxes that they automatically cut.”

Falling fast

A combined shortfall in the general fund and School Aid Fund, according to Greg Bird, director of communications at the Office of State Budget, left a $942 million deficit in the budget for the fiscal year that began last October. On March 22, Granholm issued an order to cut $274 million in spending in 21 departments, from agriculture to community colleges to the executive office. A little over a week later, with the deficit resting at $686 million, she placed all state grants on hold. Although the savings from the moratorium have yet to be determined, Bird says, “To address the remaining shortfall, we may be forced to pro-rate or cut payments to school districts.”

As for next year, the repeal of the Single Business Tax and increases in costs from health care to running prisons mean an expected $2 billion shortfall. State departments have been ordered to prepare for possible shutdowns in May and July.

Ironically, Granholm’s announcement came about a week before Michigan public radio stations aired a Morning Edition spot about states increasing arts funding by 10 percent because studies show it’s one of the best investments the government can make. Randy Cohen is vice president of policy and research at Americans for the Arts, a 45-year-old nonprofit organization for advancing the arts in America. Says Cohen:

“The government is getting back much more than they are putting in. Nationally, if you tally up federal, state and local support for the arts, it’s a little over $3 billion. But the arts industry returns $24.5 billion in local, state and federal tax revenues. Investment in the arts does not come at the expense of the government; it boosts it.”

Not everyone agrees with Cohen’s philosophy or his economic analysis, however.

The free-market proponents at the Midland-based Mackinac Center are among the naysayers. Michael LaFaive, director of fiscal policy for the center, says, “I have no doubt that people who have been receiving funds are going to feel the pinch, especially the smaller groups. But very often, government arts money may not go to the best artist, but to the best grant writer. Who can afford the best grant writers? Not the upstarts supporting edgy artists.”

He also describes it as a case of robbing artist Peter to pay artist Paul: “You have an elite, government-appointed group deciding which artists are more deserving. They are squabbling over resources of taxpayers including artists and patrons — to see which other artists get the money.”

Accepting public money comes at a price, and institutions have to accept creative limitations, explains Michael Stone-Richards, associate professor of comparative literature and critical theory at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies. The Corcoran Gallery’s cancellation of a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit over fears of offending the NEA and risking funding, back in 1989, is his example that “you simply can’t claim to be avant-garde and claim money.”

Even so, Stone-Richards believes support is absolutely necessary. “This work can’t be undone because now it is the mark of a civilized society and of civic pride. The mixed economies approach, which we see in such institutions as the Met in New York or the AIC in Chicago, truly work because pure government control always leads to corruption and pure capitalism is barbarism. American society, at this point, can’t work with just one or the other; it needs both the free market and government assistance.”

If you really want art to be elitist, Stone-Richards explains, take back the public funding. Then watch art become really private. As for Lefaive’s claim that it’s unfair to “coerce” taxpayers into supporting the arts, Stone-Richards argues, “In many areas, the government does not allow citizens to make a choice. Try saying, ‘I’m not paying my taxes toward the military.’ You’ll go to jail. It’s just that certain areas are easier targets than others.”

The deadline for next year’s state grant application is May 1, but Michigan’s financial woes have arts and culture administrators wondering if they should even bother filling out the exhaustive forms. Bracey is encouraging everyone to apply. Traditionally the MCACA receives the coming fiscal year’s budget in August. The governor has recommended $10.1 million again and Bracey’s “really, really hoping that will be the case.”

It’s understandable that many in the industry are not only panicked but angry about the state reneging. We all want to know that the arts have a place here long term. But it’s important to remember that the state is cutting education and other necessary services as well. There is a larger issue at stake here.

ArtServe has planned a rally at the State Capitol from 9-10:30 a.m., Wednesday, April 18. For a schedule of events, visit

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts and culture editor. Send comments to [email protected]
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