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Arts groups decry proposed cuts by state

Committee seeks slash in funding for Va. agency and its eventual elimination

By Preston Knight - pknight@nvdaily.com

During the course of the numerous phone calls Tracy Marlatt has made in the last few days, she told someone at one legislator's office that, if all goes as planned, they might as well remove all oil portraits hanging on the walls of the state Capitol.

"Because they wouldn't be supporting the arts," she said.

Marlatt is the executive director of the Shenandoah Arts Council in Winchester, and among the many in the art community outraged that the House of Delegates' appropriations subcommittee is proposing a 50 percent decrease -- $2.2 million -- in funding to the Virginia Commission for the Arts for the next fiscal year, and then elimination of the agency the following year. The proposal has led the nonprofit Virginians for the Arts to urge supporters to visit the General Assembly when members discuss the budget today in Richmond.

"The cultural infrastructure of the state is at great risk," said Dennis Lynch, a board member of Virginians for the Arts and executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Music Festival in Woodstock.

Virginians for the Arts was created to advocate for the arts in the early 1990s, when then-Gov. Douglas Wilder sought to eliminate the commission, and it will take the same unified effort to keep the agency alive again this year, local art officials said. Much of it, Marlatt said, is about getting the point across that being an artist is a profession, and not just "fluffy and fun."

"It's a serious profession, and it should be considered as such," she said.

Marlatt said 10 percent of her organization's budget comes from commission grants. Art organizations apply for the grants each year, and the commission has already been forced to make cuts to its grant programs because of a 30 percent reduction in funding the last two years. For the upcoming fiscal year, it suspended technology enhancement grants, canceled teacher incentive grants and suspended artist fellowships, among other things, a press release states.

Virginia ranks 49th in the nation in funding for the arts, said Warner Crocker, director of Wayside Theatre in Middletown. The theater, in a "good year," receives as much as $60,000 from the commission, he said. Its budget is $800,000.

"We think this is a huge, wrong-headed move," Crocker said of the proposed cuts.

It's the impact that the loss of funding would have on the entire community in terms of things like jobs and tourism that should raise eyebrows, officials said. Lynch, whose organization received more than $20,000 in grants from the commission for its $297,000 budget last year, said companies will scoff at wanting to move to Virginia because of quality of life issues.

"[The message] is that if you care that little about public art, public culture, arts education, maintaining a better quality of life for people, then why on earth should I relocate there?" he said.

Kym Crump, executive director of the Blue Ridge Arts Council in Front Royal, said her agency benefits from the commission's challenge grant program, as do many others. Groups apply to localities for funding, and the commission will match it, up to $5,000. If there is no commission, there are no grants and, possibly, no funds from localities, Crump said.

Even worse, officials said, Virginia receives about $1 million in federal funds that would be lost because there would not be a commission.

"It really could be devastating," Crump said.

Organizations throughout the Northern Shenandoah Valley have received more than $100,000 from the commission through grants in the current fiscal year, according to the commission's Web site. The governing bodies in Winchester and Shenandoah County are among those passing resolutions opposing budget cuts to the arts.

"It's really hard to re-instate funding once it's gone," Marlatt said. "There is a cultural community here, and it will have an impact."



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