Monday, December 21, 2009

Help for arts groups will do more than pay bills

The Buffalo News reported that every year when the final Erie County budget comes floating down from the county executive’s office, a nagging concern rears its head in Western New York’s arts and cultural community.

Why, the refrain goes, do the “big five” cultural organizations walk away with the lion’s share of the money? Couldn’t the county spread the love around to smaller and mid-size arts groups instead of forking most of it over to the Buffalo Zoo, Philharmonic, Science Museum, Historical Society and Albright-Knox Art Gallery?

“Not so much,” comes the yearly reply from a county that understandably prefers to build on its proven cultural strengths.

So this year, in recognition of the important role small and mid-sized arts organizations play in the cultural life of Western New York, a group of foundations is making a bold new investment in 17 sub-behemoth arts groups. It’s all under the umbrella organization known as the Fund for the Arts, a group that came together to bolster cultural groups during the nightmarish Erie County budget crisis of 2005.

Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker, president and CEO of the Community Foundation, calls it “bench strength.”

Some might bristle at the application of that particular sports metaphor to the cultural world, but it seems appropriate. Paul Hogan, vice president of the John R. Oishei Foundation, put it this way: “The reason that the big [culturals] are big and strong is because of the myriad of organizations at the bottom, at the middle and lower levels, that feed them.”

The new plan employs a fresh –and untested –approach to arts funding.

Instead of shelling out money to organizations based on specific projects and crossing their fingers in hopes of success –the normal M. O. for foundations –the Fund for the Arts will provide each organization with a consultant. Together, the group and consultant will figure out what the group needs to reach the next level of success—say, a new outreach plan or a way to increase ticket sales. The Fund for the Arts will then pay for whatever they conclude. In all, the initiative will cost approximately $300,000, including a major grant from the Detroit- based Kresge Foundation.

In this way, the foundations are inserting themselves into the process far earlier and staying far longer than is the standard practice. The hope is that this prolonged involvement will create a more self-sufficient organization whose fate is no longer pinned to a single funding source like Erie County or one foundation grant. Read more here.

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