Gotham Gazette

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Arts Budget

To outsiders with an interest in the arts, it may be difficult to reconcile what seems at first like two Rudy Guilianis - the one who appoints a much-derided Decency Commission to assess works of art by some obscure medieval standards; and the one who is proposing that the city spend nearly a billion dollars for major cultural institutions over the next eleven years. But insiders know there is one Rudy.

Cultural groups should not be too hasty in counting that billion dollars in capital projects, and not just because of the shaky economy. The proposals have not been approved as yet. The city has a way of proposing large plans for culture and spending very little. In fiscal year 2000, the plan for libraries and cultural institutions was $369.2 million, but only $30.9 million was actually spent.

And then take a careful look at some of the lesser-known recipients of the mayor's largesse. One of the largest this year - up there in the top 15 with Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Philharmonic and other citywide institutions with significant outreach and budgets in the millions - is the John Noble Collection on Staten Island. It is to receive $250,000, as well as its own new line in the city budget. (For those unfamiliar with this city jargon, that means your group does not have to start from zero each year. New lines are rare.)

It seems the mayor had a town hall meeting at this cultural facility. He clearly preferred the more traditional visual art at the John Noble Collection to that of the Brooklyn Museum, where a single work of art inspired both his ire and the idea of a Decency Commission. It should be stated that the John Noble Collection is a worthy cultural group, and has worked exceptionally hard these past few years to demonstrate that fact.

But while the mayor is offering the John Noble Collection $250,000 -- its entire operating budget! -- he is for the eighth straight year recommending large cuts to the Department of Cultural Affairs, a decrease of some $23.3 million in his budget proposal last month. He explained his recommended cuts by saying the reductions will require cultural organizations to diversify and strengthen their funding streams. In the process of raising additional private funds, he maintained, these organizations will become stronger by becoming more self-reliant.

For some, this is a textbook demonstration of what is wrong with the way arts are funded in New York.

The City Council might pass its own budget as it did two years ago, restoring most of the mayor's proposed cuts in culture. Although a Council budget would in fact be fully legitimate, the mayor refused last time to concede that reality. One of the ploys he used was to devise a month-to-month contracting process for hundreds of cultural groups. They were the lucky ones. Many non-profits saw no contracts processed for several months.

The mayoral mischief with the Decency Commission and with the budget process has cultural groups looking at the next mayoral race very closely, in the hopes of avoiding a repeat of the intense frustration of the past decade.

All four Democratic candidates made strong statements in opposition to the Decency Commission. City Council Speaker Peter Vallone has been steadfast in his resistance to cuts for the cultural community. Public Advocate Mark Green has his staff investigating issues of concern to the culturals, and clearly intends to have a specific set of recommendations soon. No specifics have been seen or heard from Fernando Ferrer or Alan Hevesi. Potential candidate Bloomberg is a large contributor to the arts, but that is not seen as a guarantee of support for public funding.

But all that is in the future. For now, non-profit arts groups are hoping just to get through the next few weeks of budget negotiations between the mayor and the City Council, in the hopes that enough of the cuts will be restored so that they can survive.

Norma Munn is Chair of the New York City Arts Coalition, founder and President of the Artists Community Federal Credit Union, and former Chair of The City Club of New York.

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