You’ve heard the hullabaloo. The Stimpson administration made cost-cutting recommendations for tough times that include “weaning” several arts entities from city funds. After reduced performance contracts this fiscal year, they may evaporate altogether in FY 2016.
Some decry the proposal, both for the missing funds and the message it sends about what we value. Others think it’s time we shut down the public funding trough.
Not all our cultural spots are taking it on the chin. Some will see increases in personnel spending, likely explained by overdue employee raises. Otherwise, operating expenses are shrinking.
The History Museum of Mobile will receive $210,478 more for personnel, bringing their total to $1.1 million. Yet their operating funds will be cut $100,892 to $144,329.
The Mobile Museum of Art will get $82,218 more for personnel for a grand sum of $1.5 million. Its operating funds will shrink $54,129 to $568,460.
Historic Development personnel funds are up $89,515 to a total of $315,281. Increased also are their operating funds by another $88,758 to $131,690.
The Mobile Film Office – a one-person operation – is getting a $10,312 personnel bump to a $147,982 total. The operating costs remain the same at $28,477.
The Saenger Theatre is getting an increase, too. While the city spent nothing in 2014, they’ve set aside $155,000 for 2015, roughly equal to the sum total of operating costs sliced from the History Museum and Museum of Art.
For a host of other cultural groups like Mobile Ballet, Mobile Opera and Mobile Symphony, the outlook isn’t as rosy. The Gulf Coast Exploreum is recommended to cut to just $150,000, or $467,000 less than it received in 2014.
Mobile Opera was cut to $10,000 from 2014’s $22,000 sum. Mobile Opera General Director Scott Wright said the city made it back in the $50,000 the company spent on Mobile Civic Center Theater rental.
“I think it’s shortsighted if not naïve on the part of the administration to think the arts and cultural side of those performance contracts are not really necessary for the city,” Wright said. “It’s the arts that have cleaned up downtown. It’s the arts that have brought people downtown.”
Wright not only feels it will detract from Mobile’s ability to recruit new industry and business but that it might have a cascade effect on other downtown businesses. He was also miffed at the process.
“After we go through all the original stuff, they came back with another request I thought was insulting which was ‘ask for less.’ I responded ‘we’ve done the best we can but asking us to ask for less, that’s really your job to determine now what you can do,’” Wright said.
Diana Brewer, marketing director of Mobile Symphony Orchestra (MSO) said they reduced their request to equal last year’s $51,000 contract. It’s eclipsed by the $85,000 she said they pay in Saenger rentals for the year.
“This season we will be producing 18 regular season concerts, two Young People’s Concerts, three Youth Orchestra concerts and two MSO Rocks concerts,” Brewer wrote in an email. “Ticket sales cover only half the cost of putting on concerts, so the balance must come from individuals, foundations, corporations and government grants. Like the city, we, too, are tightening our belt this year and looking closely at every expense. But to keep operating at the level we believe the community has come to expect, we simply must have assistance.”
Their recommended contract? $35,000. Brewer is confident they can make up the difference through a generous and loyal legion of support.
MSO is better off than the Centre for the Living Arts, which was axed from the proposal completely. They had requested the same $225,000 they received in the previous year. “It’s disturbing and disappointing. You can imagine how hard it is to make up that kind of cut,” CLA Director Bob Sain said. “It’s a substantial chunk [of the budget].”
Sain said Aug. 25 he has a meeting planned with the mayor later in the week. He’s also aware things aren’t done yet.
“We just have to have faith the process will come down on the side of fairness and show there’s still room in this city to have world-class aspirations,” Sain said.
Mobile Arts Council (MAC) Director Bob Burnett called a special MAC executive committee meeting Aug. 20 and an impromptu board meeting Aug. 25. An email was sent to MAC member organizations for an arts community meeting on Aug. 26.
“We’re going to tell everyone to contact their elected officials,” Burnett said. “This isn’t past the city council yet. Without creative industries, you’re not going to be attractive to organizations, corporations and businesses. City revenues drop. There are repercussions when cultural institutions aren’t supported.”
The MAC performance contract was almost halved in the mayor’s recommendation, from $65,000 to $35,000. The umbrella organization’s website lists more than 60 arts entities as members who receive services such as funding, access to exhibition and meeting space, office equipment and communication support. They sponsor the Greater Mobile Art Awards and are a hub of activity for monthly LoDa Artwalks.
Artifice has little factual elaboration as the dust-up is still in progress but there’s no shock on this end. I was fully aware of the new mayor’s sensibilities and expected this since the election returns came in last year.
I’m not raising a white flag or declaring disaster but am concerned nonetheless. However, I think Diana Brewer said it best with the following:
“The ripple effect on the community, if even one arts organization goes away, will be felt throughout, especially downtown. The economic impact of the arts is huge, but you can’t begin to put a dollar figure on the cultural impact. The arts are central to a civilized society. They are crucial to the forming of local traditions and to civic cohesion. Mobile, all of Mobile, somehow has to figure out a way to support something this essential.”
So now we get to decide if the arts are as important as a hurricane simulator on Water Street. Whatever the result, it will be what we earn … and deserve.