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Culture in the Balance: Cuts rock stable arts groups

photo by Joyce Kryszak
John R. Oishie President Robert Gioia

By Joyce Kryszak


Buffalo, NY – The 2011 Erie County budget includes $4.4 million for ten cultural groups that the county executive said are regionally significant. That left out about three dozen previously funded groups.

Now, a consortium of private foundations is trying to raise money to help some of them out. Meanwhile, the fate of those groups hangs in the balance.

Twenty six years ago, two brothers from Dublin came to Buffalo and dazzled audiences with their performance of "Waiting for Godot." That modest dining room performance in a local hotel grew into what is now a locally and internationally respected theatre company, The irish Classical Theatre Company, ICTC.

ICTC's artistic director Vincent O'Neill sits in the theatre lobby named for his deceased brother Chris. O'Neill tilts his chin up as he stares out the window talking about the toll the funding war has taken on him.

"The strain of having invested twenty-years of my adult life in creating a company in Buffalo and making it one of the cultural gems of the community and getting a slap in the face by basically our elected, one of our elected leaders - that it doesn't have any validity and isn't worth funding... so, if you like on a spiritual level, yes, it's depressing," said O'Neill.

O'Neil said this is not the first time he and the rest of the cultural groups have been slapped in the face.

Ten years ago the city cut all funding. Then in 2005, the county budget crisis left the culturals high and dry. In subsequent years, some county funding returned. But the state has cut back too. And now, once again, the county has zeroed out dozens of groups.

County funding supplied ten percent of ICTC's budget. O'Neil said they wll survive without it. But the cuts leave IVTC - and many others - struggling to stay afoot. And it could be tricky for not-for-profit cultural groups, that rely on a diversity of funding, to land on their feet.

But the John R. Oishie and other private foundations, called the Fund for the Arts, hope to provide what they call "a soft landing." They are trying to raise about $500,000 to make up for some of the lost county funding.

Oishie president Robert Gioia said, the problem is, they don't know yet how many groups they will be able to help.

Gioia said they started with a list of 23 groups. But that left out at least 13 others who used to get county funding. Gioia said that list might grow.

"Since that time there has been discussion amongst the Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance and other funders to try and expand that list, depending on the amount of money that's raised and the organizations to be considered," said Gioia.

Not knowing which groups will get left out has some cultural leaders a bit angry at the whole process. Richard Lambert from the New Phoenix Theatre said it is like being on a roller coaster.

"By now using a different set of criteria, it's going to pit one arts organization against another now. this is the same thing that was happening before," said Lambert.

Gioia agrees there needs to be a better mechanism in the future. But he said that in this immediate crisis, all the foundations can do is try to clean up the county's mess.

So far, about $400,000 has been raised. And they expect to have the other $100,000 together by the end of the first fiscal quarter. Totally, that would be roughly 80 percent of the county funding that went to 23 cultural groups last year.

But with every group that gets added to the list, the pie gets smaller.

Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center is one of the most acclaimed alternative arts organizations in the country. They bring legendary avant garde artists and musicians such as Odean Pope and many others to Buffalo.

But Executive Director Edmond Cardoni said the erosion of public funding has forced them to do fewer solo shows this year. And now he said, with at best, a fraction of what they got from the county last year, they are looking at having to lay off some of their already small staff.

"If we lose general operating support it definitely makes it harder to maintain our payroll," said Cardoni. "What do our employees do with their money? They pay their mortgages, they pay their property taxes, they pay their rent, they buy groceries, they shop. All that money is spent here in Erie County, and I think that's forgotten too."

Another local, nationally recognized arts group is also facing possible downsizing.

The Just Buffalo Literary Center has expanded its programming over the last few years with collaborations, educational programs and literary events by diversifying its funding.

The most recognized program is the popular "Babel" series that brings in international authors. Executive Director Laurie Dean Torrell said they used county funding for a portion of their operating expenses. She said the money paid for about half of what it costs to offer the series.

But with that funding reduced or gone, Dean Torrell said the next season of Babel could be the last.

"It is not possible to do a program like Babel. It would not be possible to continue working on developing the Bookarts Center. If things got really, really bad, we shrink down to a bare minimum ande do as much as we can - but it would be an enormous loss," said Dean Torrell.

And Dean Torrell said every time a cultural group is diminished, it takes apart a piece of what had been - at least until now - a thriving, integrated cultural eco-system.

Next week, WBFO continues our series on "Culture in the Balance" with a look at how some of the region's African American Cultural groups are faring under the funding cutbacks.