Well, that was a close call.
Last Tuesday, the Raleigh City Council ruled not to cut arts funding in the city's proposed 2011–12 budget. In said budget, funding for the City of Raleigh Arts Commission (CORAC), which represents 35 arts groups and programs, was planning to go from $4.50 per capita to $4 (which represents what each Raleigh taxpayer would contribute to the arts). Since the funding is used for local arts groups to apply for substantial grants—and since the city's per capita is already below the national average—the arts community obviously had a problem with this.
Earlier this month, a huge gathering of CORAC members and supporters attended the monthly meeting of the Raleigh City Council. With many of them wearing lime green stickers reading "think art," several members approached the podium, taking a few, wisely used minutes of the council's time to plead their case.
"This is the fabric of our lives," local artist Sandra Dubose-Gibson told the council on Tuesday, June 7. "It's something that we all depend on at the end of the week, to be able to have that outlet of expression and to go to the symphony and the plays and all of that kind of stuff. So it's not something that we can afford to take away from."
Unsurprisingly, members of the arts community are rejoicing over this decision. "I think it's a wonderful thing for our city that the leaders have realized how important the arts are, and they really brought us forward," says CORAC chairwoman Laura Raynor.
However, they also worry they may have to go through the same routine next year. "I think every year, there's gonna be a fight for it," says Eric Mitchko, general director of North Carolina Opera. "They wanted to cut it last year. I'm sure next year's city budget will be tight also. And they'll be trying to cut it, and we'll be trying to keep it. I imagine we'll do the same dance next year that we just did."
City manager J. Russell Allen, who proposed the budget, said the council was interested in restoring $200,000 to the budget to keep it from being cut. So they took the money out of a frozen account where money for capital maintenance projects was stored three years ago—or, as Smith calls it, "some capital reserve dollars that we had put aside for this tough economy."
Unfortunately, Allen says, this is a one-time-only deal. "It was just a reserve," he says. "So it's not going to be available for just years and years to come."
John Lambert, executive editor of Classical Voice of North Carolina, feels that the council didn't have to go to a reserve for extra dough. The members could've looked at what was being spent in the budget. Lambert points out that there are several allocations are automatically taken out of the budget; one of them is a $150,000 allocation to the Carolina Ballet. This is part of a 10-year contract that guarantees the ballet $250,000 from the city each year.
"It's unfair to those who are competing for grants to have guarantees out of the grant pot to the ballet," says Lambert. "If the city wants to throw millions and millions of dollars at the ballet, that's fine. Just don't take it out of this pot, which was set up as a competitive grants process for external arts agencies."
Allen said the council didn't discuss those allocations. "They certainly could've reduced the expenses somewhere else in the arts budget to be able to handle the $4.50 per capita," he says. "But they chose not to ... But I assume they wanted to fund those items."
Carolina Ballet Executive Director Lisa Jones says there have been "misconceptions and miscommunications" regarding the company's particular expense. The ballet, she contends, needs direct funding from the city, much like the North Carolina Symphony does.
Says Jones: "We have a separate contract that the city entered into, and that kind of outlines the terms of [the] funding that we receive annually, the terms of our rental agreement for the renting of the spaces ... There are numerous organizations that either the city management has decided, or the city council has decided or the staff has decided, to appropriate a percentage of that per capita for those responsibilities."
Nevertheless, Jones wants the per capita to stay as it is. As for the rest of the arts community, they are doing what they can to remind people how both precious and profitable the local arts scene is, even citing it as a huge employer for the area. Of course, they also wouldn't mind it if the local economy got stronger so they could keep their funding.
"Whether the city can afford the $4.50 allocation really depends on the health of the city budget," says Mitchko. "You know, if the economy turns around and tax receipts fill up, then there will be less pressure to cut it. As for what we can do, we just continue showing that we have a lot of public support for it."