Arts groups press state to make good on grants


Representatives of area arts organizations say the freezing of $14 million in state grants as a result of Nee Jersey’s budget crisis has created a financial emergency for the arts that will trickle down to local economies.

Numa Sasselin, chief executive officer of the Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank, explained that the withholding of already approved grants will impact the theater and will mean the loss of millions for the local economy.

“The state committed grant funds to our organization in July. Since then we have acted in good faith, expecting our grant contract to be honored by the end of the calendar year as it always has been. We understand that the state is in a financial crisis, but this funding freeze creates a calamitous financial emergency,” Sasselin wrote in a Dec. 9 letter to Monmouth County’s 12th District state legislators.

Sasselin quantified the impact on the Count Basie Theatre by stating that 200,000 people annually attend 200 shows at the facility. The economic impact of this activity, he said, amounts to $11 million for the local economy and the full-time equivalent of 306 jobs.

“Put another way, each Count Basie Theatre performance creates 1.5 full-time jobs in our community; each performance lost is 1.5 jobs lost,” Sasselin said. “We understand that the state’s finances are in serious condition, but freezing funds that have already been obligated will only turn a bad situation dire. We are truly leaping from the frying pan into the fire, and ask the governor to unfreeze state funding that will allow our organization and many others to continue operations and stimulate our local economy.”

In July, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts (NJSCA) approved 229 grants totaling $14.4 million. The grants, which were to begin being disbursed this month to hundreds of nonprofits that signed contracts with the state, were frozen as part of Gov. Jon Corzine’s effort to close a gap in this year’s budget.

NJSCA processes the awards in two installments, granting 85 percent up front and requiring that the balance be paid at the end of the fiscal year, after grant recipients file their final reports.

Monmouth County Arts Council (MCAC) Executive Director Mary Eileen Fouratt explained the impact of the freeze during an interview on Dec. 17.

“This is of great concern to the Monmouth County Arts Council, to the large and small arts organizations in the county and throughout the state,” she said.

MCAC is due approximately $175,000, funding that is contracted with smaller arts organizations, according to Fouratt. MCAC supports 1,600 arts events annually serving 700,000 people throughout the county.

“If the state funding remains frozen, many arts groups will be in great difficulty as they are waiting on their last payments for fiscal year 2009 and the first payments for fiscal year 2010,” she said.

Fouratt explained that the remaining 25 percent of MCAC’s fiscal year 2009 grant is actually part of the fiscal year 2010 funding.

“So right now we are waiting on $30,800 which would go out to regrantees for their last 25 percent. For fiscal year 2010, if the state does not unfreeze payment, we would not receive the money designated for MCAC programs or for regrantees for fiscal year 2010 grants,” Fouratt said.

ArtPrideNJ Executive Director Ann Marie Miller said the freeze will have a catastrophic effect on New Jersey’s arts community.

“Arts organizations have made longstanding commitments to artists, vendors, staffs and patrons in reliance upon the expectation that their grant contracts with the state would be honored,” Miller said during an interview on Dec. 17.

Many organizations that operate on a calendar year are not able to meet yearend obligations, Miller said, most notably their payrolls.

“Full disbursement of these contractually committed funds is essential. In some cases, the ongoing viability of venues could well hang in the balance,” said Miller.

Fouratt said that in New Jersey, arts and history programs contribute more than $2 billion each year to the economy through direct and patron-related spending.

“New Jersey state cultural funding is part of the economic solution, especially during tough budget times,” Fouratt said.

“We certainly understand that the state is in a crisis situation, but freezing grants that were awarded in July and have been budgeted by arts organizations that operate as close to the edge as they can will exacerbate the situation in the state.

“We regrant to smaller companies and we are hoping it is unfrozen soon. These small groups are out money that they had a contract for.”

Of great frustration to recipients of frozen arts and history funding is the fact that cultural activities in New Jersey are supported solely through the dedicated revenue source of the hotel/motel occupancy fee, explained Fouratt.

New Jersey taxpayers do not pay for public support of arts, history and tourism through property tax, sales tax or income tax.

“The disappointing thing is that it’s a creative community. We’ve tried to be creative with funding the arts through the hotel/motel tax because funding isn’t coming from taxes,” Fouratt said. “Arts organizations realize the difficult situation the state is in. But our organizations made contracts based on the money promised to us by a portion of the hotel/motel tax.”

Arts organizations say the freeze will have a severe impact on the local economy because arts, history and tourism generate revenue.

“It’s a really bad time to cut the arts. I hope they take a good look at what generates revenue and look at what has already been contracted for. The freeze won’t help New Jersey. It will be even easier for people to say ‘I’m out of here.’ We can really be part of the solution,” said Miller

“If the Basie cuts back shows, [fewer] people would come into Red Bank. For every $1 spent on the arts, $8 is generated. This would make a bad situation worse,” Fouratt said.

As of Dec. 17, Sasselin said he had received no response to his letter.

In a letter dated Oct. 24, a spokesman for Gov.-elect Chris Christie wrote to ArtPrideNJ stating: “Chris Christie supports the arts,” citing the educational, cultural and personal benefits the arts bring. “The arts in New Jersey not only help unite us, they help define us. This benefit alone is reason enough to support the arts in our great state.”

The letter continues by explaining the importance of arts and history as an economic engine that generates more than $2 billion in economic activity and employs more than 80,000 people across the state.

Christie said in the letter that he believes Corzine has circumvented the laws requiring the arts to be funded at certain levels.

He said he believes statutory mandates for the funding of the arts should be followed.Miller said ArtPrideNJ is monitoring the situation and talking to Corzine and Christie.

“This just doesn’t make sense. A contract should mean something,” Miller said, adding that the time frame is in the governor’s court. She said although it would have been nice to hear something before Christmas, “We might have to wait until Christie is in office.”