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Utah arts get a jump-start

Utah arts get a jump-start

By Ben Fulton and Roxana Orellana, The Salt Lake Tribune

December 28, 2009

For a nonprofit arts organization only 10 years old, Spy Hop is precocious, if not downright robust, for its age.

Rick Wray, executive director who co-founded the multimedia education center for youth, holds court over 17 full-time employees. An estimated $1.4 million annual operating budget sustains programs ranging from a multimedia apprenticeship to youth radio and documentary film projects.

In these trying economic times, however, even the most agile nonprofits on the block need help. In Spy Hop’s case, that meant a $50,000 check from the National Endowment for the Arts.

It was a small fraction of the $50 million the NEA received early this year as part of the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). By itself, the one-time $50 million in federal assistance to the arts nationwide was an even smaller percentage of the estimated $787 billion in spending and tax cuts that constitutes what’s known as stimulus funding.

According to the federal government Web site tracking stimulus spending, Utah has as of the last reporting cycle 603 projects funded by $1.5 billion worth of federal money. The $426,000 received by Utah arts organizations constitutes less than 0.03 percent of the stimulus money allocated for the state.

The local stimulus funds are a cultural investment worth every cent, given the lean business model that nonprofit arts organizations have operated on for decades, said Robert Lynch, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Americans for the Arts Action Fund. Lynch cites Dun and Bradstreet research showing that nonprofit and for-profit arts organizations make up 4.2 percent of all U.S. businesses. Nonprofit arts groups -generate jobs and additional spending. Consider the arts’ ripple effect, and you’re considering the cost of private lessons, musical instruments and arts materials ranging from paints to fabric for costumes, as well as the additional spending on dining, transportation and hotel rooms from patrons attending performances.

“This is not slush,” Lynch said. “It’s not extra. It’s an important part of the economy that has learned to be very efficient over the decades. If this was a true bailout, we’d be talking about at least a billion dollars.”

One Utah arts group already has felt the heat of pork-style criticism, which isn’t surprising, with the public still fuming over last year’s federal bailout of banks and financial institutions, on top of this week’s news reports about extravagant year-end bonuses.

In a “Stimulus Checkup” report issued earlier this month, Sen. John McCain singled out Orem’s Timpanogos Storytelling Festival as one of 100 projects he considered a waste of taxpayers’ dollars. As you’d expect, Orem arts sponsors were quick to defend the storytelling event, which draws thousands of people every summer and is said to be largest such festival in the West. “I don’t think [McCain] has ever attended our festival,” said Louise Wallace, director of the Orem City Library, the event’s sponsor.

The library received $15,000 in stimulus money distributed by the Utah Arts Council to fill the position of an outreach services assistant, supporting the festival and the rest of the library’s 850 cultural programs.

Wallace and other Utah arts officials consider the stimulus funds a lifeline, anything but “mad money.” The money was earmarked to preserve jobs, but local officials say they’ve used the employment money to support their strategic aim to chase revenue.

“Corporate giving is usually directed at educational needs,” said Patti Hanson, development director for the Salt Lake Art Center, which received $25,000, directed to a full-time curator of education position. “[Corporations] don’t like to pay for an arts salary, especially in an environment where companies may have to announce layoffs. What’s so incredibly important about receiving this funding is that we can direct it toward a salary, even if it’s little more than $25,000.”

Besides SpyHop, two other arts organizations received funds directly from the NEA-Ballet West and the creative-arts-for-youth program Bad Dog Discovers America. An additional 15 groups received word this fall that they would receive some of the $301,000 distributed through the Utah Arts Council.

The money came at a particularly crucial time, as most arts organizations are reeling from the loss of charitable donations, especially from corporations.

“Our corporate giving last year was literally cut in half,” Hanson said. “This will get us through, but we’re hoping and anticipating that we won’t be as in-need of this kind of funding in the future.”

Ballet West’s $50,000 helped preserve two salaries for dancers, in the wake of the company’s $1.2 million in budget cuts that led to staff furloughs and salary freezes. “It’s a wonderful gift,” said Johann Jacobs, executive director of Ballet West. “But we’re not ruling out further concessions from anyone. If we’re lucky, the current conditions might last only another three years.”

Wray said weaning Spy Hop away from dependence on community giving is a priority whether or not the economic climate improves. The nonprofit recently instituted an Alumni Media Studio to match Spy Hop graduates with small businesses and nonprofits. The “social enterprise opportunity,” as Wray calls it, makes money for the graduates, generates income for Spy Hop and provides a low-cost media product for customers.

“There’s a real movement for nonprofits to become more self-reliant,” Wray said. “It’s a time for the community to take a deeper look at the nonprofit world and determine which organizations really contribute to the community.”

The bottom line: $426,000 in new funds for Utah arts organizations is greatly appreciated, with every dollar lovingly spent. The pressure to pay your way through ever more creative and tenacious methods after the stimulus money is gone, however, remains.

Lynch, the national advocate, considers his 35-year career in the arts with optimism and caution. “I’ve weathered at least seven economic downturns, some of which felt much worse than this one,” he said. “If the economy doesn’t improve after a while it won’t be an arts problem, but an American problem.”

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