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Arts Advocates Nervously Watch Funding, Plan for Future

Each year, arts advocates gather in Columbus for the Governor’s Awards for the Arts. House Speaker Bill Batchelder of Medina presents awards at this most recent ceremony, alongside fellow Republican Senate president Tom Niehaus of southwest Ohio. These lawmakers are considering a budget that cuts funding to the state’s arts agency, the Ohio Arts Council, by 19.5 percent. And this isn’t new to those in the arts. The last budget, passed by a Democratic House and aRepublican Senate and signed by former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, cut the Ohio Arts Council’s funding by 47 percent. OAC executive director Julie Henahan says given the $8 billion structural deficit that the budget started with, she’s grateful the cut wasn’t worse.

Julie Henahan: “Ohio legislators are very interested in, and a lot of times are participants and consumers of the arts themselves. And I think that the economy over the last three to four years has just been what it is.”

But less funding at the state level means less money at the grassroots, for arts organizations around the state. And Henahan says there are a lot of them.

Julie Henahan: “The non-profit arts organizations – they are a lot of small businesses. We’ve got arts institutions in this state that do very important work in their communities and they’re operating on budgets of less than $150,000 a year.”

And Henahan and other advocates note that a 2009 study from Bowling Green State University shows that the arts is a $25 billion a year industry, employing over 231,000 people. But arts funding still has been taking a beating in terms of cuts over the last few years. Dave Seyer is with Cultureworks, the agency funding seven professional arts organizations in Dayton.

Dave Seyer: “It seems whenever there’s a downturn in the economy the arts are the first to suffer.”

So those in the arts community have been thinking creatively about where their money might come from in the future.

Karen Gahl-Mills: “I think that there are several states now that are beginning to think about what can we do to provide a level of support that is more stable. And if a dedicated tax or some other kind of funding stream makes sense, it’s probably something to explore.”

Karen Gahl-Mills is the executive director of Cuyahoga Arts & Culture – which is one of the top five organizations providing public funding for local arts groups in the nation. One of the reasons is a 30 cent per pack tax on cigarettes that voters approved in 2006. Gahl-Mills says this year CAC distributed to130 organizations grants worth $15 million – which is three times the proposed annual budget of the Ohio Arts Council.

Karen Gahl-Mills: “The community went from having one of the lowest per capita public investments in the arts – I want to say it was 64 cents in 2004 – to having one of the highest. I think we’re over $13 per capita.”

But the last few years have been difficult for many arts groups. Dave Seyer at Cultureworks in Dayton says funding was down 2 percent last year largely because individual donors have come forward to fill in the gaps from state and other funding cuts. And he says the dedicated revenue from the tax in Cuyahoga County is a tempting idea.

Dave Seyer: “Although these are tough times, trying to put something on... a tax increase on a local ballot would probably be a bit challenging right now. But we continue to look at different revenue streams.”

And in southeast Ohio, where there’s a growing arts community but double-digit unemployment in some counties, the challenge may be even greater to find other funding avenues. Advocates are hoping for even more stats on the impact of the arts on Ohio’s economy when the Bowling Green study is updated, probably later this year.