March 12 2009 12:00 AM

Governor reverses commitment to arts and culture

Once Gov. Jennifer Granholm saw the arts as integral to developing her "Cool Cities" vision for Michigan. But last week she turned a cold shoulder to the arts.

First the news came last week from ArtServe Michigan, an arts advocacy group based in the Novi area, that Granholm had recommended cutting the budget for the Michigan Council of Arts and Cultural Affairs for fiscal year 2010 from $7.9 million to about $1 million, which would be exclusively for capital development projects, eliminating any state money for day-to-day operations. Then on Monday, it was learned that arts organizations wishing to apply for state money would have to submit a non-refundable grant application fee of $1,000, more than triple the old application fee of $300.

For Emily Sutton-Smith, development director of Williamston Theatre, one of more than a dozen organizations in the area that receive funding directly from the state arts council, the news was a “slap in the face.”

“It’s very discouraging, I have to say,” Sutton-Smith said. “You read stuff like that, and say things like, ‘Why do I live in this state?’ We were already 50th. Now we’re going below? Is it possible to get any worse?”

That’s 50th, as in last, which was the state’s rank in funding for the arts in the last fiscal year, according to a study by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. For the current fiscal year, the state jumped to 39th, due to a spending increase of $200,000.

Mike Latvis, policy director for ArtServe Michigan, said state money spent on arts and culture creates jobs, something the state needs more of right now. Latvis said $3.9 million in state grant money went directly into payroll for arts organizations last year, which paid 9,203 fulltime employees, 2,006 seasonal employees and 2,320 new hires. “No matter which way you twist, turn or pull, this is a job,” Latvis said. “Not only a job, but we provide a return on the state’s investment. We provide a unique quality of life. We should be fighting tooth and nail to save the jobs we have, not arbitrarily axing them from the budget.”

Latvis said the money also provides a basis for organizations seeking matching funds from foundations. “It’s not just a handout,” he said. “There’s an overall match, which is over $310 million, that comes out of this $7.9 million. The state’s not providing the brunt of it, but the state’s role is very important.”

Leslie Donaldson, executive director of the Arts Council of Greater Lansing, said replacing those dollars in today’s shrinking donor climate will be tough on local arts organizations. For fiscal year 2008, the Council redistributed about $40,000 from the state in “mini-grants” to arts and culture organizations in Greater Lansing.

If the governor’s recommended budget passes, Donaldson is worried about where that money will come from.

“Direct jobs will be affected and many indirect jobs will be affected,” Donaldson said. “It’s not just the arts, these are businesses. There is economic impact the nonprofit businesses provide. Not just the pretty picture or wonderful theater show that you see. People are going out to eat, arts groups are buying services, carpenter nails.”

Megan Brown, a spokeswoman for the Governor’s Office, said cutting arts funding was a painful decision for the governor and that she hopes other sources of funding could be found to preserve the state’s humanities. She mentioned the American Economic Recovery Act, signed into law Tuesday by President Obama, as a possible source of funding for some arts organizations.

“In these tough economic times, government can’t be all things to all people,” Brown said. “When the choice is between health care for the vulnerable and arts grants, we’ve had to make the choice that is best for our citizens.”

While few would want to be in the governor’s shoes right now, it’s still tough for some to swallow the implied message that arts and culture are expendable coming from the same woman who promoted “Cool Cities” and culture as the future of a revitalized Michigan.

One example of a community that seemed to be following that model is Williamston, which in recent years has seen its own professional theater open in the heart of downtown, as well as a handful of coffee shops, restaurants and boutiques.

“We had 6,000 people come to our productions last season,” Sutton-Smith said. “If you look at national averages, that translates to over $200,000 spent at our neighbors’ businesses. The businesses are all on board. There are small businesses that have chosen to open on our block because were’ here. They see this synergy with the restaurant and the movie theater and us. People have been choosing to open businesses when most are closing.”

This year, Sutton-Smith said 15 percent to 18 percent of the theater’s operating budget came from state grant funds. Today, she and other theater staff will sit to brainstorm about what the future might hold for them without that money. But that doesn’t mean she expects the theater to go anywhere, let alone quietly. “If there’s one thing about the people who work in this sector, we’re extremely tenacious.”

ArtServe is working to organize that tenacity by putting together a unified, grassroots campaign to try to change the governor’s mind. The group is asking people to contact their legislators and the governor about the issue, and Latvis said there are plans to bus people into Lansing for hearings and meetings related to the arts. “I think [cutting arts funding] is often considered by legislators as the easy choice,” Latvis said. “They don’t think there is large enough of a voice to talk back at them. If that was part of the decision making, they’ve got another thing coming.”