Gotham Gazette

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Budget Shenanigans

The final budget from the Giuliani administration was passed after the usual alterations and "enhancements" by the City Council. For the cultural community, those alterations resulted in a restoration of the Mayor's propose d cut of $20.1 million to the Department of Cultural Affairs in the expense budget and an allocation of over $200 million for capital for the cultural groups. For the first time, the amount allocated to cultural groups not in city owned buildings appears to equal, if not slightly exceed, the funds for the 34 in city owned buildings.

The restoration is welcomed by the cultural community, which has come to regard the City Council as saviors in the annual budget ritual. In fact, there may be no other constituency in the city looking forward to term limits with both unrelieved relief and deep anxiety. Few, if any, regret the loss of a mayor who consistently sought to severely decrease their funding. None, however, look forward to thirty-five new council members, whose knowledge of the arts and cultural field is likely to be limited at best.

This latest budget was complicated by an unwanted and unnecessary 25 percent increase by the mayor for energy for the 34 cultural groups in city owned buildings. This appears to be a budgetary maneuver. Once allocated as energy, these funds are not transferrable to other operational aspects of a cultural institution's budget, so the $5 million has the effect of appearing to increase cultural spending. In reality, this appears to be a way for the Mayor's Office of Management and the Budget to increase the energy aspect of the city budget, which if unused -- as it most certainly will be for cultural groups -- can then be transferred by the administration to other areas of spending, including non-energy needs.

While the Council was aware of this situation, either they were unable to pry loose from OMB just how much money was squirreled away in this manner, or other aspects of the budget negotiations took priority. What is clear from OMB testimony, is that any citywide process of the kind described, if as oddly skewed as the cultural projections, has millions diverted to energy increases which will be unnecessary. That may be welcome news for the next mayor if the economy continues to drag along. It is not welcome news to the cultural groups, who would have preferred to see an accurate projection so those funds could have been allocated to the increases they so badly needed.

In the last eight years, the cultural groups have received only one general increase in funding and that was a modest amount from the Council last year. Efforts to achieve an increase this year failed due in part to the tax cut package, which limited the funds available to the Council, and to the preference by the Council for individual enhancements to specific arts and cultural groups.

Once called "add-ons", the Council allocated $8.7 million to 198 groups, ranging from $650,000 to Lincoln Center, as well as $506,700 for Jazz at Lincoln Center, and various amounts totaling $637,000 for American Museum of Natural History. Wave Hill in the Bronx got only $2500, but the Brooklyn Botanical Garden is mostly likely happy with their $165,000 and the Bronx Zoo at $400,000 is probably not complaining. Most groups received far less, sometimes as little as $1000. However, in the last three years, the Council has moved from an add-on list totaling $5 million to one at $8.7 million -- a 74% increase!

The cultural groups welcome the "add-ons" but rarely see the total picture. The same process of designating expanding funds to particular groups outside of an agency evaluation process is also increasingly evident at the state level. This process of "add-ons" and "member items" threatens the very heart of what most arts and cultural groups believe is essential -- public support for the use of tax dollars to fund the arts.

Public support for arts funding is based on the assumption that such funding is provided fairly and through some kind of evaluative process, and it is that evaluative process that the cultural community has used to defend itself against efforts at censorship.

Many in the cultural community feel they have no choice but to seek "add-ons" and "member items" since increases through the Department of Cultural Affairs and the State Council on the Arts have been either nonexistent or minimal. However, political clout or the ability to hire a well connected lobbyist is not a guarantee of artistic quality, nor of service to a community.

Elected officials mean well, but both they and the cultural groups may be inadvertently damaging the public perception of how tax dollars are used in the arts when they bypass the evaluative process. In doing so, the short term benefits may have serious long term costs. In the meantime, it is safe to predict that only the short term will matter. Political and cultural leadership to look at the broader picture are lacking even in the city that likes to call itself the cultural capital of the world. So, as the Giuliani administration draws to a close, it leaves the cultural community financially worse off than when it entered office, and perhaps weakened in a significant way. The legacy of the City Council is at least one of real concern about the fiscal impact of cutting funds to the arts and cultural community.

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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