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Making the Show Go On: Arts Groups Grapple with Federal Funding Cuts

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Mona Martínez plays the title role in Ay, Carmela, the 1st show of GALA Hispanic Theatre's 36th season.
Lonnie Tague
Mona Martínez plays the title role in Ay, Carmela, the 1st show of GALA Hispanic Theatre's 36th season.

Ay, Carmela is the newest offering from GALA Hispanic Theatre, at the historic Tivoli Theatre in Columbia Heights. GALA's co-founder and executive director Rebecca Read Medrano says they're launching their 36th season with Ay, Carmela because it's a powerful tale of artists caught in the wrong place, at the wrong time, during the Spanish Civil War.

But the truth is, they also chose José Sanchis Sinisterra's modern classic because it's cheaper. GALA usually opens its seasons with what Medrano calls a "classical classical."

"But we thought, 'hmmmm... a 19-person classical play,'" she says, explaining, "the Spanish classics are very large." Whereas with Ay, Carmela, "it's two people," Medrano adds.

Her $1.6 million theater company is among two dozen groups facing major cutbacks to the grants they receive from the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs program. Last year, instead of the usual grant of roughly $300,000, GALA only received $74,000.

Arts grants sustain deep cuts

The NCACA started in 1985, to help fill the gap left by D.C.'s lack of state arts funding.  But last spring, Congress slashed the program's budget, which usually totals around $9.5 million, to just $2.5 million for Fiscal Year 2011.

"Our announcement that the funds wouldn't be available came late April or early May. Our fiscal year ends June 30," Medrano says. "So that isn't enough time to replace $200,000 or $300,000."

But it is enough time to borrow it. In GALA's case, they borrowed from an $800,000 grant they'd received to renovate the Tivoli. 

"So we borrowed from ourselves to be able to finish the season," she says. "The question is, going forward, we don't want to cannibalize that." But they don't want to cancel productions or programs, either. In fact, Medrano says she vows never to touch the free, after-school classes they provide for area youth. 

Theaters' education programs often first to be cut

But some of her fellow National Capital Arts recipients feel they have no choice but to cut education programs.

"What we're looking at is eliminating actually the freelance musicians and artists who are able to go in the schools," says Debra Kraft, director of the Choral Arts Society of Washington, D.C.  "We can't sustain that alone; that's just not possible."

Choral Arts, a 47-year-old nonprofit, had its grant reduced from $314,000 to about $93,000. Kraft says the NCACA is Choral Arts' last surviving source for education funding, so they're shifting their approach.

"We are still trying to reach students, but we're doing it through concerts for students, instead of having teaching artists in the schools," she says. 

Choral Arts recently launched an e-mail campaign asking supporters for help. Debra Kraft says people need to understand how crucial these federal funds have been for so many arts organizations in D.C.

"There's not the pocket of money from city, from county, or from state. If you live beyond the District you often have those three public sources plus the federal money," she says. "So we need this very badly."

Due to budget pressures, there isn't likely to be any funding for the District's arts programs in Congress's first draft of the Fiscal Year 2012 budget,  says Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which administers the NCACA program. 

Congress could put the funding back into the budget, but program participants aren't betting on it.

Increased reliance on giving

One prime example is Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, which is now in rehearsals for the first play of their 32nd season: A Bright New Boise, written by Samuel Hunter, and directed by John Vreeke. In 2010, Woolly received nearly $320,000 from the program; that number was chopped by $220,000 this year. The cut amounted to between 5 and 6 percent of the company's annual $4 million budget, according to Managing Director Jeff Herrmann.

When Herrmann received word of the cuts, he immediately emailed the company's database, saying, "We're going to have to increase individual contributions. We're going to have to tighten our belt where we can. We're going to have to sell our last couple shows of the year very strongly."

It worked. It's last two shows -- BootyCandy and Clybourne Park -- sold remarkably well. The staff reduced expenses, and Herrmann cut a full-time position. As for those individual contributions: "We probably brought in another 150,000+ than we had originally budgeted," Hermann says.

Still, the members of the Woolly Mammoth family aren't getting comfortable lest they come to resemble an actual 'woolly mammoth' a bit too closely. "Hopefully we won't go extinct like our namesake did," Herrmann says. 

But GALA's Medrano says it's going to be tough for any of her fellow arts organizations to hang in there, unless the U.S. changes how it prioritizes the arts.

"You can't just willy-nilly say, "Produce this art and do these services with no public funding,'" she says. "Somebody has to help find the money, and then say, 'This needs to go for arts and education, this needs to go for arts programming.' That is the soul of our city."

For GALA and its cohorts, at least for now, the show must go on, even as the real-life drama over funding unfolds offstage. 

[Music: "Money" by Kander & Ebb from Cabaret: The New Broadway Cast Recording (1998)]

Photos: MC: Arts Funding


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