The $30 Million Cut We Can’t Afford

If city budget planners have their way, there will be less Shakespeare in the Park, shortened museum hours and thousands of layoffs throughout the city.

It is all part of a potentially damaging-and ill-advised-attack on the New York art scene that could leave arts in the city with $30 million less in funding at a time when private donations are drying up.

The New York Observer today begins a campaign to reverse those cuts, or at least lessen their severity.

The central point: Arts institutions are far more than luxuries, particularly in a bad economy. They provide informal day care for families, entertainment for teens and cheap weekends for budget-strapped families.

Yet as part of a broader round of cuts in response to a city deficit, Mayor Michael Bloomberg last month announced a 31 percent funding cut for the city’s arts organizations-which comes on top of a 40 percent state cut to the New York Council on the Arts.

Many small and midsize art groups simply may not survive the cuts. The number of free cultural programs, performances and events will severely decline.

“These cuts are too much and too deep,” says Norma Munn, chairwoman of the New York City Arts Coalition. “There will not be recovery for a significant amount of art groups.”

In past cutbacks, many arts institutions were able to turn to individual and corporate benefactors to make up the difference. Now that safety net is no longer there.

“This is what I would call a perfect storm,” says Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum and chair of the Cultural Institutions Group, which is composed of 33 of the city’s major cultural institutions.  “Everybody is facing financial difficulties. Corporate giving is way, way, way down. Individual giving is down. Foundation giving is more turned toward social services. So there’s no way to make it up. The waves are coming from all directions.”

Collectively, CIG member organizations employ 9,000 New Yorkers from every borough and from every segment of the community.

According to the NYCAC, there are approximately 200,000 jobs generated by cultural institutions in the state-positions that could now be imperiled, further jeopardizing a New York unemployment rate that still hovers around 9.8 percent.

While it’s difficult to determine the exact number of layoffs that could stem from the budget cuts, since arts groups employ many part-time and temporary workers, Ms. Munn estimates 1,500 to 1,600 jobs in small and midsize arts groups will be eliminated if the budget is approved.

Mr. Lehman added that when the organization faced a $18 million budget cut in 2009, 417 employees were laid off and 459 were furloughed. Now, with a possible $30 million cut, 695 jobs could be lost and 765 employees furloughed.

“I think sometimes there’s not a realization that cultural [organizations] are generating money,” says Andrew Hamingson, executive director of the Public Theater, which produces Shakespeare in the Park. “For every one dollar, we generate eight.”

Those dollars are returned to the city in the form of restaurant spending, taxicabs, T-shirt sales and  neighborhood vendors. “I think that’s why it’s extremely shortsighted,” Mr. Hamingson said. “It’s not just cutting $20 million. Twenty million times eight is what you’re risking.”

In response to the $29 million in proposed cuts, cultural leaders are pushing for a restoration of $20 million-less than 1 percent of the city’s overall budget. Arts leaders aren’t arguing that they should be immune from the kind of cuts everyone is facing; they’re simply arguing that their cuts shouldn’t be so extreme.

Earlier this week, Mr. Lehman testified before the City Council to urge for the $20 million restoration; Ms. Munn, meanwhile, is spearheading an email campaign to leaders in Albany, hoping to stop the state cuts before they happen.

As part of its campaign, The Observer is running public-service advertisements urging a restoration of the cuts, and sponsoring billboard ads, from Fuel Outdoor, that highlight the arts’ economic impact in New York.

“In 23 years, I’ve never seen a state agency taking a 40 percent cut,” Ms. Munn said. “I find it astonishing that Governor Paterson seems to think it’s O.K.”

Many small and midsize art groups simply may not survive the cuts. The number of free cultural programs, performances and events will severely decline.

But the biggest hit of all may be emotional.

“To me, it seems at this point, given the economy, given the stress that people are under, one of the bright spots in our lives are the arts, the cultural parts of our city,” Ms. Munn said. “It nourishes our souls and spirits and we need it badly. I think it’s emotionally shortsighted. We’re cutting out a part of the heart and soul of our city.”

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The $30 Million Cut We Can’t Afford