Sunday, February 13, 2011

Call for Arts Leadership in Western NY?

Buffalo News featured this recent perspective on the need for better arts leadership in Western NY:

The small arts groups and individual artists of Western New York can't seem to catch a break.

Last year, the flagrantly incompetent leadership of the Arts Council in Buffalo and Erie County "misspent" some $48,000 of state money intended for small arts projects like the Elmwood Festival of the Arts and Allentown's First Fridays Gallery Walk. Barring some unforeseen development, that money is unlikely to be recovered.

In response to the Arts Council's failure, the New York State Council on the Arts decided to shift its grant program for Erie County's individual artists and small organizations to the Carnegie Art Center in North Tonawanda.

That probably seemed like a prudent idea at the time, because the Carnegie had been overseeing Niagara County's version of the grant program for several years. At one time, the Carnegie and the Arts Council shared an employee, who coordinated the state council's grant program for both counties.

But the programs for both counties -- now more vital than ever in the absence of public funding for small groups -- are stalled. It turns out that the state council is withholding $113,241 of funding for the programs because the Carnegie Arts Center has not completed its 2009 tax filings, which were due last November.

This development, according to Carnegie director Mary Simpson, comes out of the organization's checkered financial history. Simpson said the organization, which she took over from former director Ellen Ryan in 2009, is in the midst of repairing accounting practices that were in disarray when she arrived. Simpson said she expects to have the tax information filed within the month.

"The Carnegie Art Center does not have the financial ability to fund the ... programs if the actual grant money is not in our accounts. NYSCA is aware of this, and I believe that the NYSCA staff respects the very difficult choices the Carnegie has made to stay fiscally viable," Simpson wrote in an e-mail to The News. "Since I became executive director in 2009, I cut the budget to balance income and expenses. Some of the cuts include printing, advertising, travel, my salary and all other personnel except for the [grant] position."

Whatever the reason for the Carnegie's financial woes -- and whether Simpson clears them up quickly -- it seems clear that the organization is in no state to administer this important program. Next year may be a different story. As it stands, the inability to file taxes on time, however excused, ought to disqualify anyone from handling more than $100,000 of public money.

The problem is that few other local organizations have the staff, time or inclination to relieve the Carnegie and get the grant program on its feet. In the past, Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center has coordinated the program, a task it would be hard-pressed to accomplish now, given the Chris Collins autocracy's most recent attempt to eviscerate the local cultural industry.

Until someone else steps in or the Carnegie cleans up its act, small groups like Sloan's Arts and Cultural Council, the annual Juneteenth Festival, the Parkside Community Association's summer arts program and dozens of other community arts programs across Buffalo Niagara are out of luck.

There is a desperate need for a new organization to replace the Arts Council to foster a regionwide vision for the arts and act as a stable conduit for state funds. A noble effort on that front, supported by the state council and local foundations, with an increasing focus on the growing Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance, seems promising. But it needs to move much faster because the problem is so acute and the challenge so steep.

All of this comes after the state council underwent a major reorganization because of staff reductions and buyouts, which has angered many across the state, including Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo. On top of that, after having its budget systematically reduced for years, the council is facing yet another 10 percent cut under Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposed budget. This further impairs its ability to improve the state's economy by making strategic investments in the arts.

The state council's woes, in turn, add to the sense that the arts in New York State Ô and especially in Western New York -- are increasingly the victims of a political boxing match that grows more contentious by the day.

This state of affairs cannot persist. Public officials cannot continue to ignore the irrefutable evidence that public investment in the arts can play a vital role in bringing New York State back to economic prosperity. On the flip side of that coin, local arts organizations like the Carnegie need to do simple things like file their taxes on time.

It's not fair to punish community arts groups because of shortsighted politics or lax accounting. The artists and citizens of Western New York deserve better.

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