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State budget cuts threaten arts organizations

Here’s something I wrote last month, before the start of the state’s fiscal year.

ST. CHARLES – Directing a musical is a difficult undertaking, especially in a small theatre with limited financial resources. Donna Steele, Founder and Artistic Director of Steel Beam Theatre in St. Charles, was proud of her latest show—a world premiere. Now that it had opened, she could turn her energies into developing the theatre’s budget for the upcoming year.

Last week, though, she received an email from Ra Joy, Executive Director of the Illinois Arts Alliance, an arts advocacy organization that lobbies in Springfield. The email stated that in the budget passed by the Illinois General Assembly on May 31st, state funding for the Illinois Arts Council dropped to $6.4 million, a 75 percent cut from the previous year. The Steel Beam Theatre received annual grants from the Illinois Arts Council, and Steele had seen their amounts drop over time, from a high of $14,000 to $10,000 last year to $9,000 this year. But this budget threw into doubt the idea of receiving any funding from the IAC for next year.

“It’s pretty frightening seeing the state put the arts on the back burner,” she says, “and making them such a low priority.”

As the start of the next fiscal year on July 1st draws near, state officials are taking their “doomsday” scenarios to the public, and the people who depend on state agencies’ support are preparing for the worst.

Eliud Hernandez, Deputy Director of the Illinois Arts Council says, “Last year, we awarded approximately 1300 grants to organizations and 150 grants to individual artists. This [budget] impacts our dollar amount support for artists, artist organizations, community organizations, schools, public radio and television, and humanities councils.”

Ra Joy puts it more bluntly.

“We’re facing catastrophic cuts. It’s shameful how the arts are funded in Illinois. We must act now.”

Although Steel Beam Theatre is enjoying steady attendance figures, Steele is adopting a budget for fiscal year 2010 that cuts 10% across the board, and more in some areas.

“This is the first year we’re rolling the budget back instead of increasing it,” she says. “We don’t want to cut into our staff, so we’re putting less into printing, postage. Recycling sets and costumes.”

Kay B. Holley, a board member of the Celebration Company, a theatre organization in Urbana, agrees. “We would try not to skimp on production costs, but the biggest way it might affect our community is in higher ticket prices. That could have an impact in these economic times. It becomes a luxury.”

Private and corporate donors may also begin seeing funding the arts as a luxury, as well. As the recession continues, theatres fear private donors will increasingly fund only the arts organizations that they think are the “best.”

“In my opinion,” Steele says, “an Illinois Arts Council grant is an endorsement that this is a fine organization, a stable organization. It encourages private funders, which is important because it’s very competitive.” Implicit is that if the grants disappear, so may the donations.

Joy sees the current crises as the latest point in a disturbing trend. “The arts are already underfunded in this state,” he says. “In fiscal year 2008, when other states increased their arts support, Illinois was one of only three states that decreased their funding. We’re still working to dig ourselves out of the budget hole.”

And while he notes that a strong arts community makes for a good quality of life throughout the state, Joy knows that to convince legislators to reopen their purse strings, it must also make good economic sense.

“Arts are the cornerstone of tourism in our state,” Joy argues. “Chicago has a $1.1 billion arts industry, with over 30,000 jobs. In these times, we can’t afford to not support them.”

In the meantime, though, Donna Steele continues on with the day-to-day business of running a theatre company. She checks her voicemail for reservations, sets the props for the next performance, and, for another year, prepares to improvise.

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