Arts groups facing bleak future

Struggling artists in New York are finding they will have to suffer more for their art, the result o

Struggling artists in New York are finding they will have to suffer more for their art, the result of reduced government spending, donor fatigue and a weak economy.

Many nonprofit cultural organizations in the state, from dance studios and art institutes to historic societies and museums, report they are facing some of the hardest times in their histories — with the prospect of worse to come — said Doug Sauer, CEO of the New York Council of Nonprofits. “They are facing a crunch and have to make a lot of decisions,” he said.

Some have closed, such as the New York State Arts Organizations, also known as NYS Arts, or will close by the end of the year, like the New York State Theatre Institute, because of funding problems.

Others are cutting back on staff and programs, like the Albany Institute of History & Art. The institute lost $53,000 when the city of Albany abolished its annual arts grants for 2011. The program, established in 1985, provided between $250,000 and $350,000 annually to dozens of arts and cultural agencies in the community.

In addition, Gov. David Paterson has reduced funding to the New York Council on the Arts by nearly $14 million since 2008. The council’s current budget for grants to nonprofit cultural agencies in New York is $35.1 million, down from $49 million in 2007.

“It is a crisis for some, no question about that. And more than one person has indicated the times we’re in is a perfect storm for museums,” said Anne Ackerson, director of the Museum Association of New York. “It is not a good climate to be in the arts.”

Sauer said the funding problem is the worst he has ever seen. “The economy has been worse than it has ever been since the 1930s. This is on top of New York state withholding payments to organizations, going back to April,” he said.

In addition, many organizations for the first time lost member item grants promised to them by state legislators; Paterson vetoed them. Sauer said in many cases organizations spent their grants in advance to fix roofs or buy boilers. Now, they have had to stretch their credit lines further to pay for the purchases themselves.

“The cutbacks are on top of losses they already have experienced. You have to look at what they have lost over the last year and a half. It is cumulative,” he said.

Sauer said government support is important but not the only source of revenue for art and cultural organizations. “Generally speaking, arts are more reliant on patrons who pay for services and on donations,” he said, citing corporations and individuals. They also rely on endowments, which are tied to the stock market.

In difficult economic times, people tend to spend less on the arts and donate more toward human service agencies that provide direct services to people, Sauer said.

Steve Ricci, spokesman for the Albany Institute of History & Art, said the organization receives 95 percent of its revenues from donations and grants. “They are still making grants, but the piece of the pie is smaller because everyone’s hand is out.” He said corporate donations are down significantly because of the economy.

“We are struggling and have been struggling for some time,” Ricci said.

Ackerson said museums are suffering from attendance declines. “The economy has affected individual visitations and school visitations. School budgets being cut as they have been means less money is available for field trips.”

Philip Morris, CEO of Proctors, said his organization is holding its own, primarily because about 87 percent of its revenue is earned through ticket sales. Sales were good January to June, weak during the summer and have been OK for the fall.

Morris called the current fiscal climate “lean but not frightening for Proctors, but for some groups it is frightening.”

Morris said hard times come periodically. “I have been doing this for 36 years. It happens a lot. It is not the worst it could be, but it is hard and painful.”

At the same time, he added, opportunities often present themselves: consolidation, new ways of doing similar kinds of things, a focus on the core mission.

Sauer agreed. “They will have to look at how to do things differently, like affiliations or mergers. They will have to look at where they can eliminate duplication and look at the Capital District as the Capital District rather than just as Albany.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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