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Advocates Target NY Arts Cuts: Extent of Possible Job Losses Remain Unknown

05/27/2010 05:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How many jobs will be lost?

In response, arts advocacy organizations are launching an all-hands-on-deck effort to force Paterson to retreat -- or at least to convince members of the fractious, dysfunctional state legislature, nearly two months late in voting on a budget, from going along.

Trouble is, even as these groups ramp up public outreach, private outrage and quiet dialogues with state lawmakers, the absence of an easy-to-digest, one-sentence answer to the question "How many jobs will be lost?" is not helping their efforts.

Which is why Norma Munn, chairperson of the New York City Arts Coalition, is asking constituents to join a protest-email campaign currently underway across the state. In a communication with her membership, Munn asserted that lobbying Paterson, who is not running for reelection, is a lost cause: "Please do not spend your time on Gov. Paterson's office. He has made his proposal. We need to focus where decisions will now be made."

Instead, Munn wants advocates to email four legislators in Albany: Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Assemblyman Steve Englebright, State Senator John Sampson and State Senator Jose M. Serrano. She also provides five sample emails to send, and while rhetoric in them is civil, it stings: "...we can do better than 77 cents per person in state spending...Arkansas is managing 74 cents!"

In an interview, Munn told me that Paterson's NYSCA cut is a "back to the future" proposal that "does nothing" to solve New York's budget issues. Instead, it will "tip some arts groups into a decline from which they will not recover. In New York City, we have had two arts groups close in the last two weeks, another on the verge of bankruptcy, and a few weeks ago another actually closed temporarily. Those are the ones that made the news. These were long-term and/or sizeable groups. We will see more."

Meantime, another advocacy group, NYS Arts, has activated a network of "regional captains" to drive a massive email campaign of its own -- to the same posse of lawmakers. In an email to her members, Executive Director Judith K. Weiner vowed the campaign would go on "until we have a state budget." So far, she wrote, more than 16,000 emails have been sent to Albany lawmakers.

It remains to be seen whether comparing per-capita arts funding in New York to that of Arkansas, or sending 16,000 emails, fundamentally affects the voting of New York state legislators or the budget priorities of a lame-duck governor. If the "How many jobs will be lost?" question had an answer, one must ask, could the case for preserving -- or even boosting -- arts funding be made more easily?

In a one-sheet document familiar to those in Albany, it seems that the New York State Council on the Arts itself offers something of a direct answer: approximately 200,000 jobs, according to the agency, are "generated by arts and cultural institutions in New York State." How many of those jobs would be vaporized following a 40 percent NYSCA cut remains unclear.

NYSCA's figure, it should also be noted, is remarkably close to the conclusion of 194,000 jobs announced by Alliance for the Arts, another advocacy group, in a 2006 study (though the recession has surely eaten into that total).

Of course, timelier statistics would be helpful, admits Randall Bourscheidt, president of the Alliance, but arts groups are so resource-bereft that filling out surveys -- a crucial way to generate statistics -- tend to fall by the wayside.

"As we say in our militaristic way, the field suffers from survey fatigue," Bourscheidt says. "With the greatest of sympathy, I want [Gov. Paterson's cuts] to be reversed. But I would rather slap a 20-page report down on somebody's desk. Something that says, "This proves what a substantial loss of jobs the governor's proposed cuts will result in.'"

Coming soon, he says, is a potential new arrow in the arts' quiver that could be a game-changer.

It is called the Cultural Data Project. New York, along with Pennsylvania, Maryland, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio and Michigan, are participants in it. Operated by the Pew Charitable Trusts, it enables "arts and cultural organizations to enter financial, programmatic and operational data into a standardized online form." Results can then be devised on various topics -- including, perhaps, sector employment. Officially, the stated aim of the Cultural Data Project is to help grant-making organizations reach funding decisions. Clearly, though, any up-to-the-minute arts data has the potential to be used as a policy and political tool.

Bourscheidt wouldn't go quite that far. But he did say, "Once the Cultural Data Project becomes the norm, that is huge progress."