Loss of Arts Funding

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Phillips Academy Elementary School in downtown Birmingham is a stunning example of Jacobean architecture, with it’s interior of finely-carved stone panels, gargoyle figures, and frescos over the doors depicting ideals such as “Dawn of Civilization”. On this day, the 1923 building hosts a very modern educational experiment.

In the choral room, thirty-five 4th graders, dressed in white shirts and navy pants, form writhing rows. Henry Hearns stands before them, a statuesque dancer and choreographer, and as he begins to talk, the students exchange dubious glances. But soon he has them caught up in the action. Hearns is an instructor for the Children’s Dance Foundation’s Science In Motion project, offered to at-risk kids in schools that have limited or no arts programs.

“They get so much information thrown at them during the year and the focus is on, really, passing the standardized test that people are throwing at them and they really do not connect the information.”

Hearns says dance education encourages kids to synthesize what they learn. They may have memorized the parts of a cell but have no understanding how that cell is the basis of all life. The instructors have the kids physically form a cell using their bodies to mimick the activity within the cell. Hearns says the moment of realization is visible on their faces.

“What are we going to do with people out there who can’t connect things, who can’t begin to think beyond what they see. The value, is astronomical! We can’t put a price tag on it.”

“We have always supported the arts and that they are very important to the county. We have a county to run and that county provides essential services to its citizens and should be at the lowest costs possible to them. We had to tighten up last year; we’ll be tightening up again this year. So I really have no idea what the future holds.”

Since January, local arts organizations have had to tighten their belts, dramatically. Children’s Dance Foundation Executive Director, Diane Litsey, says the county funding had allowed them to expand into needy areas. Losing their $182,000 grant is a hard hit.

“We will have to eliminate programs unless we can find money to replace that and it will be difficult.”

To counter the loss, local arts organizations are ratcheting up their fundraising efforts. Keith Cromwell is Executive Director of Red Mountain Theater Company.

“We’re beating the pavement just like everybody else out there. Every arts organization is knocking on everybody’s door.”

Red Mountain Theater Company received a total of $310,000 from Jefferson County over three years. Nearly half of that came last year.

“Did it allow for phenomenal growth in that year? Yes, we increased our staff size, we increased the artistic quality of our productions. Now my goal right now is in the wake of that loss of funding to keep that standard as high.”

Cromwell also refuses to allow the theater’s public programs to suffer.

“We give out close to $80,000 worth of scholarships on an annual basis. Now, I’m determined to continue to do so, by hook-or-crook, I’m out there trying to find that money. I will not have one child in this community who wants to take our workshop be denied that experience because the parent doesn’t have the funds to make it happen.”

The Birmingham Museum of Art used its two million dollars in county grants to significantly increase the number of programs in schools, recreation centers and libraries. Museum director Gail Andrews says the substantial financial infusion definitely effected strategic planning.

“It certainly provided a good base for Pompeii that we knew we had staff salaries and ability to do additional marketing and outreach for the region. We ended up with approximately 96,000 people to see Pompeii and going into that planning with the county funding was enormously beneficial.”

Andrews says it’s hard coming off the high of the Pompeii exhibition and into the “tightening-up” mode.

“We are committed to providing high-quality service for the community and we won’t let that quality lapse. But we will decrease the amount of programs and exhibitions, there’s no doubt about that.”

There’s also no doubt that the elimination of county funding has prompted a lot of local arts organizations to take a hard look at how much they depend on government funding. There’s general consensus that government is an essential player, but Keith Cromwell believes the recent cutbacks may actually strengthen the way local non-profits operate.

“I’m not going to be a boo-hoo person about it. I’m a silver lining person and all it’s doing is creating a better opportunity for arts organization to wake up and smell the coffee about strategic alliances and collaborations.”

But, Cromwell concedes, there is a risk to doing ‘too well’ without government funding.

“I do not want anyone to think “Oh, see they did fine without it so they don’t need it in the future.” That is the most backwards thinking I can ever comprehend. We just have to continue to push hard to make the value known to the people who make the decisions that they must fund the arts in this city.”