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State Legislators Could Provide More Arts Funding, But With Eyebrow-Raising Restrictions

The Massachusetts State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Massachusetts State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The annual push from arts advocates for increased funding has grown more complicated this year as state legislators debate whether to impose new, eyebrow-raising restrictions on the state agency that manages cultural funds.

At stake is whether the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) can use state money for travel costs and continue to provide grants for individual artists — longtime recipients of the agency's past investments.

Both the House and the Senate have proposed increases to the MCC — a $533,000 increase from the House and a $2 million jump from the Senate — but the increases come with the restrictive caveats. The debate marks a much more layered process than prior years, when the conversation around arts funding focused mostly on whether the state could afford an increase or not. Last year, state legislators approved a $2 million increase to the MCC, the first increase for arts funding in four years.

But the possibility of another $2 million increase this year has been mired by a more scrutinizing eye from state legislators. It began when the House budget specified that the MCC could not use funds "for travel costs." The unusual stipulation stemmed from a series of Boston Herald stories and opinion pieces that criticized the MCC's conference travel in the latest fiscal year — a total of less than $13,000 for a statewide agency that manages a $16 million budget.

The proposed sanctions regarding travel would limit the organization's employees from supporting cultural organizations outside of Boston — one of the organization's most fundamental tasks, said MCC Executive Director Anita Walker. “Our team is out in every community every single day. And we have so many communities in Massachusetts that are eager to revitalize their downtowns and make wonderful exciting places for the people. ... It would be a devastating loss if we were forbidden from leaving Boston.”

Additionally, the restriction would prohibit the MCC from helping other communities in Massachusetts establish new cultural districts, said Walker.

"We have experts in urban planning and community development who are walking through rural communities, gateway cities, with the mayors and with the leaders of these communities helping them think about how to create a cultural district."

The language was written into the budget after a recommendation from the House Ways & Means Committee, according to the office of state Sen. Edward Kennedy. He filed an amendment, which would require the MCC to create and file a spending plan that would outline how the organization plans to use the funds by Oct. 1. The amendment would create some common ground, Kennedy said, between what the MCC wants and what the House intended with its proposed budget, which was submitted in April.

Kennedy said his proposal "increases the accountability or at least gives the legislators an idea of just how they're spending that money."

Language in the House budget also states funds would be used for grants specifically for local cultural councils, nonprofit cultural organizations and public district and charter schools, a change from last year's budget, which stated the money could be used for "grants to or contracts with public and non-public entities."

Walker said that amended language would restrict the council from investing in individual artists. "In terms of individual artists, they are the backbone of the cultural environment here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Individual artists choose to come to Massachusetts, choose to live and stay in Massachusetts because of the investment that the Mass Cultural Council makes in their work."

The Senate began debating the budget Tuesday, considering amendments to the Senate Ways and Means recommendations. The next step is approval by the Senate of the final budget to be sent to a conference committee for review, which should happen by the end of May.

Related:

Cintia Lopez Arts Fellow
Cintia Lopez is a fellow for The ARTery, WBUR's arts and culture team.

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