What Gov. Baker's Proposed 55 Percent Cut In Arts Funding Could Mean To Massachusetts

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

A slew of state agencies and programs are reeling in the wake of Gov. Charlie Baker’s cost-saving vetoes to hundreds of budget items approved by the House and Senate.

One of the sectors being especially hit hard is arts funding, with a proposed 55 percent cut to the Massachusetts Cultural Council. The MCC distributes grants and support to arts organizations across the state, from major museums to small community nonprofits.

MCC Executive Director Anita Walker was shocked to learn about the governor’s proposed $7.7 million cut to the MCC’s $14.1 million budget. She said it would eviscerate the agency.

“We are the singular state agency that supports the cultural landscape in Massachusetts," Walker said. "We fund more than 400 nonprofit cultural organizations, we support access to the arts and culture to literally thousands and thousands of young people and we have programs that are taking care of our most vulnerable teenagers.”

Alexis Altamirano is one of those teenagers.

“I genuinely believe that I would’ve dropped out of high school,” Alexis told me on a recent afternoon. “I believe I would’ve gotten involved with people who are in gangs.”

Alexis said she did not get involved with gangs because of the Urbano Project, a community arts education studio in Jamaica Plain that offers classes pairing artist-mentors with city youth. Since freshman year, the 17-year-old grad has been coming to Urbano after school to stay out of trouble while learning about art making as a social practice.

“There’s a lot of violence in my community, and coming here is a way to stay away from that,” she said, “and to think of ways to reduce things like that and make it so I’m able to cope and find a way to change the situation.”

Stella Aguirre McGregor founded Urbano seven years ago and told me it’s served about 1,000 students so far. She worries cuts to the state's cultural agency will threaten her organization's programs, which are tuition free and actually pay a stipend to students.

“Spaces like this do so much for the city and the young people and the community," Aguirre McGregor said. "Small organizations like ours are the ones that are going to suffer the most with this kind of cuts."

Stella Aguirre McGregor founded the Urbano Project in 2009. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Stella Aguirre McGregor founded the Urbano Project in 2009. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Aguirre McGregor explained how the funding Urbano receives through the MCC makes up about 5 percent of the budget — which might not sound insurmountable — but she said it adds up to much more than that.

Aguirre McGregor said the MCC's funding validates Urbano’s impact on the community, and that stamp of approval helps attract additional grants money. For McGregor, a 55 percent cut sends the wrong message about the state’s priorities.

Walker agreed with McGregor's view.

“That was the largest cut by percentage and by dollar amount in any state arts agency in America,” she said, “and that includes states like Oklahoma — which is suffering extreme budgetary problems — and Puerto Rico, which is bankrupt. It’s a very sad commentary on Massachusetts.”

State Rep. William Pignatelli, a Democrat from Lenox, hopes to avoid that.

Pignatelli is the House vice chair of the state’s Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development. He is leading a letter campaign asking House and Senate leadership to support an override of the governor’s veto.

Pignatelli said the proposed budget cut would impair the state's creative economy.

“This is an economic engine of Massachusetts, it’s the third largest industry in the commonwealth — and in my district, the Berkshires, I would argue that it’s number one," Pignatelli. "Such a devastating cut from the governor prompted me to say we’ve got to circle the wagons."

Pignatelli says 130 Senate and House members — from the Berkshires to the Cape, Democrats and Republicans — have signed on. A two-thirds majority vote is needed for an override to go through, so he says he's optimistic.

But Pignatelli also said arts and culture, which drive tourism, have been a frustrating sell in the past.

“Here’s an industry that is generating $1.2 billion, 32,000 job across the commonwealth, in every corner — from small towns to big cities — but yet you’re failing to recognize that and validate and say, 'Yes this is a wise investment.' ”

Classes at the Urbano Project pair artist-mentors with city youth. The Urbano Project would lose 5 percent of its budget if Gov. Baker's arts funding cuts are approved. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Classes at the Urbano Project pair artist-mentors with city youth. The Urbano Project would lose 5 percent of its budget if Gov. Baker's arts funding cuts are approved. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

In fairness to the governor, Pignatelli said the state's financial picture is dire, with a revenue shortfall of about $800 million. Baker said he has to find ways to fund so many other things, including emergency assistance for the homeless and ice and snow removal.

“And I get the fact that those are difficult decisions,” Baker said this week, “but I think it’s really important for us to start the year with a budget that we have full confidence is balanced so we don’t end up doing what we did last year which was chasing the number down all year long.”

Senate President Stan Rosenberg sees the governor’s arts funding cuts differently.

“It's really very short-sighted and it's frustrating,” he said.

Rosenberg said he expects the governor's arts funding veto to get overridden. That’s what happened last year when Baker tried to reduce the MCC's budget from $14 million to $11.8 million.

In discussing the arts funding cuts, Rosenberg evoked a letter John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail as he was penning the Constitution.

“He talked about the importance of funding the arts all the way back at the founding of the country,” Rosenberg said, “and here we are still having these little skirmishes over providing a few dollars to help support arts and culture in our society which is really a really critical element of a well-balanced society.”

And so is the back and forth between the Legislature and the governor.

Longtime arts advocate and Massachusetts Artists Leaders Coalition co-founder Kathleen Bitetti urged people to learn more about the way things work in the State House because a lot goes on behind closed doors. Bitetti has been fighting for artists' issues on Beacon Hill for more than 20 years.

"Nothing surprises me anymore with arts funding being cut," Bitetti said, "It’s more like, 'Here we go again, let’s go back in it!' "

Bitetti has followed arts funding battles for years through previous administrations. She said, in a way, the MCC is lucky because the arts community and its backers are usually very vocal.

"It’s easy for us to say, ‘Oh god, it’s horrible what they did to the arts,’ but the big picture? It’s horrible for a lot of people," she said.

The governor's veto for the MCC’s budget is just one of about 300 that the House and Senate need to address before the session wraps on July 31.

This segment aired on July 22, 2016.


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Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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