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Flash News from the Front, 10-17: The Recovery
Dance and Funding Communities Brace for Cutbacks

By Darrah Carr
Copyright 2001 Darrah Carr

"We respect the challenges you face. But do not let the World Trade Center give you more excuses. Now more than ever, the world needs art."

--Risa Steinberg, dance artist and teacher, addressing arts funders.

"...the cultural community does extend beyond Broadway."

--Linda Shelton, executive director, the Joyce Theater

NEW YORK -- Even before state and local arts agencies begin a planned official assessment of the losses suffered by arts organizations operating below 14th Street after September 11, leaders in arts funding say the situation is bleak for local arts organizations, and even moreso for individual artists. "Before September 11, the frame of the economy of the dance community was a great concern," Ted Berger, executive director of the New York Foundation for the Arts, pointed out at a dance community town meeting last week. "Because of September 11 the arts have become hidden victims."

"As far as I can see, the individual artists haven't even registered on anyone's radar screen yet as people who need help," added Berger, one of several officials of public and private funding agencies who spoke at Thursday's dance community town meeting at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church.

As the city braces for what former deputy mayor Fran Reiter, an important liaison to the arts community, says will be 15 percent across-the-board cuts to all city agencies, it is also preparing to cooperate with the state on an official assessment of the financial damage to downtown arts organizations.

While the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York State Arts Council prepare this study, said DCA commissioner Schuyler G. Chapin, the city's Arts and Business council has launched "Arts for Hope," an initiative to get New Yorkers back into theaters, where attendance has been sub-par as some in the suburbs avoid travelling to Manhattan.

Last Thursday's town meeting was both highly informative and emotionally moving. Initiated by Dance/USA, the gathering was intended to identify potential funding issues for dance companies, presenters, and individuals in wake of the World Trade Center tragedy. To that end, the program featured representatives from both private foundations and government agencies, as well as members of the dance community. Speakers also included Richard Schwartz, chairman of NYSCA and Margaret Ayers, executive director of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation.

The healing power of the arts and their importance in times of tragedy was a theme throughout the meeting.

"In New York City," said Reiter, "there is a greater appreciation now for the importance of what we do. The arts are one of the greatest attractions of people to this city." Nevertheless, increased appreciation does not necessarily translate to increased funding. The national economic slowdown prior to September 11, coupled with the devastation that followed, means that every arts organization that relies on funding, be it through government, corporate, or foundation means, has been severely hit. "Spending policies will have to be reduced," said Reiter. "We'll have to do what we do with fewer resources. Everyone can expect belt tightening. 15% will be cut from the budgets of all city agencies. Beyond that, there is a $4 billion dollar deficit in the operating budget that must be balanced." Reiter predicts that organizations will be dealing with this retrenchment for the next three years.

For dance companies that already feed on diet-sized budgets, the concept of "belt tightening" seems overwhelming. Indeed, Berger pointed out, "No one knows better how hard the funding situation is than the dance community. You've never had money, yet you've been resilient. You've been historically undercapitalized, especially in recent years." To avoid further evisceration post 9-11, Berger said, increased arts advocacy is critical to making sure the community "gets our fair share" of the public relief money that the federal government will direct to state agencies.

The situation could be even more dire for individual artists not eligible for some forms of funding, said Berger, and yet who have lost loved ones, income, and property. (Regarding individual civil liberties, Berger highlighted the unique role that the arts community can play in "calling for increased advocacy for civil liberties issues. We are as patriotic as any other community in New York City, yet we are also aware of and tolerant of difference.")

If last week's meeting provided some depressing information, it was also a chance for artists to show they are not going to take further funding constrictions lying down.

"Please know that we respect the challenges you face," said Risa Steinberg, the veteran Limon dancer and teacher, "but do not let the World Trade Center give you more excuses. Now more than ever, the world needs art."

Even major arts organizations are concerned about being left out of the city's recovery plans. Linda Shelton, executive director of the Joyce Theater, asked those present "to work with the mayor's office to get the word out that the cultural community does extend beyond Broadway. He's been very vocal about Broadway, but we go into small communities." And as those communities have fewer resources than Broadway, they have been hit just as hard; while the Joyce experienced sold-out houses for Parsons Dance Company last week, ticket sales in general have been down, and the Jocye's school programs have been hurt as well.

For individual artists dealing with the psychic ramifications of 9/11, this Saturday at noon, P.S. 122 (155 First Ave.) hosts a meeting with psychologist Sally May. And for those that want to vocalize their feelings, Movement Research Journal will devote its next issue to the the subject. For info, e-mail Sarah Michelson at mitchyeah@earthlink.net.

And of course, some artists are struggling on regardless. "People are still making work," said the Field's Jessica Reese Dessner. "Artists feel very isolated now, but people are going forward. There is the issue of the relevance of art right now. Is our work important? And the answer is yes, it is more important that ever. In the past few weeks, seeing work in progress at the Field has been incredibly fulfilling."

Chapin echoed this sentiment, recalling, "In the World War II budget crisis, one of Churchill's advisors told him to close all theaters to help the war effort. 'Good God, man!' Churchill responded, 'What the hell are we fighting for?'

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