Budget crunch suffocating Brooklyn arts organizations

The Brooklyn Paper
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As Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the City Council try to mend the enormous budget hemorrhage left in the wake of the World Trade Center attack, new victims - employees of Brooklyn’s cultural institutions - are piling up in unemployment offices every day.

While the mayor announced a 15-percent budget freeze on all city spending, Brooklyn’s arts and cultural institutions - already trimmed of fat by city cuts in the early ’90s - particularly felt the recent machete blow and are now, they say, cutting to the bone.

The City Council must now debate Giuliani’s budget modification, and the next 30 days will tell if the 15 percent stays in effect - or grows larger.

According to Marya Warshaw, founding director of the 10-year-old Brooklyn Arts Exchange, the group is eliminating its Fall 2002 performance season and 25 percent of its senior staff members due to the anticipation of drastically diminished funding. These months following the World Trade Center attack, said Warshaw, "have been a burden on everyone. Arts organizations have to share in that burden, but not take a bigger chunk."

Warshaw explained that the many services Brooklyn’s arts and cultural organizations provide might not be readily apparent. "We’re responsible for the stability of communities, after school education and arts within the school day," she said.

In the midst of the holiday season, difficult decisions had to be made by the leaders of the borough’s cultural institutions to deal with the budget crunch.

The result has been layoffs, reduced hours and docked pay.

In some instances, services to the public have been compromised. In the case of the Brooklyn Public Library, which had to bear a $7.47 million budget cut, the Sunday hours of 16 neighborhood branches have been suspended. The Library could not confirm at press time whether staff had been cut.

But all of the spokesmen agreed that when it came to the future of Brooklyn’s cultural institutions additional cuts to their budgets would be disastrous to their abilities to provide services.

The Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, in particular, is especially in need of additional funding from private and corporate donors.

The Brooklyn Philharmonic has already had a tumultuous two years. When times were hard, maestro Robert Spano gallantly offered a percentage of his pay to ease the burden, sources say.

Under new executive director Catherine Cahill, it seemed that there might be greener pastures ahead for the Philharmonic - until the attack and an already apparent recession. When Cahill tallied up a $500,000 shortfall following Sept. 11, plus "a worst-case scenario of $190,000 in additional ticket sale decline," she said, she applied for a loan from SEEDCO, an emergency loan fund

The Daily News proclaimed in its Nov. 21 edition that the SEEDCO loan to the Philharmonic was "WTC victim aid money." Cahill says the News got it wrong.

"The New York Trust and United Way do not grant institutions directly. They funnel them through a grassroots-level agency - in this case SEEDCO," said Cahill. "Specifically, the Ford, Mott and Starbucks foundations made funds available for not-for-profits that were affected. The United Way and the New York Community Trust honored those restrictions and used the funds for what they were intended for - not-for-profits. We were grateful for the loan and remain grateful."

Despite the interest-free loan, the Philharmonic is still dealing with a $500,000 shortfall to a $2.7 million budget, she said, adding, "When there’s no cash, there’s no cash."

"We’ve trimmed some of the production values [of the concerts] without damaging the core integrity of the program or educational programs," said Cahill. "But any further and we’re into the bone and marrow of the institution."

Carol Enseki, president of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, said that in response to the budget cuts, her staff has been trimmed 15 percent through layoffs and a hiring freeze.

"We have experienced cuts in our operating budget from the city, state and private funding," said Enseki, which she estimates to be a loss of $750,000. In addition to trimming staff, "some educational and family programs and resources for after-school programs have been cut. That’s the short list."

The cuts from the city, in addition to "losses from the state, borough and projections of what contributions and earned income numbers will be for us means a loss in excess of $1.5 million out of a budget of $28 million," said Cynthia Mayeda, deputy director for institutional advancement at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

"The museum is going to do everything we can to avoid layoffs, but the higher-paid staff took a pay cut retroactive to July 1," Mayeda said.

She explained that the last time the city made cuts to Brooklyn Museum funding in 1990, 63 people were laid off and then more every year in a series of layoffs for four years.

"We’ve never recovered," said Mayeda.

"We’re well past the bone here."

Mayeda said some of the stress comes from not seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

"We don’t know where the economy is going," she said. "We tighten, tighten and tighten, but for how long?"

For the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which president Karen Brooks Hopkins said was hit with a double whammy when its campaign for subscription sales coincided with the aftermath of Sept. 11, "Every show is a nail-biter."

"When every show is review-dependent it changes the dynamic. You lose more money. You don’t know how you’re going to do," she said.

Hopkins’ staff has been forced to take furloughs - one unpaid week off each. The alternative was layoffs. There is also, of course, a hiring freeze.

"I don’t want to decimate the staff," said Hopkins. "I’m trying to be as creative as possible to keep the institution strong. It’s a temporary setback for [all the cultural institutio­ns]."

BAM has lost between $1.2 million and $1.5 million from city, state and private sources, according to Hopkins. She says it’s too soon to tell how 2002 programming will be affected, although a South African musical theater piece titled "The Mysteries," has already been cut from the schedule as have Thursday night performances in the BAMcafe and five gospel brunches.

"We’re taking a little here and a little there, so the public doesn’t feel it as much," said Hopkins.

According to Judith Zuk, president of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, their total loss is "at least $1.2 million and that doesn’t even take into account a significant shortfall in endowment interest. We are nervous about the erratic behavior of the market. It’s too soon to know for certain if we’ll be impacted in a negative way."

The Botanic Garden did cut staffing by freezing "all open positions."

"By sheer luck we had 15 open positions," said Zuk. "It was a way to get immediate savings without negatively impacting individual’s lives. Now we have to deal with reduced staff and make sure our horticulture department plant collections are properly maintained. Our special displays, public programs and special performance have also been scaled back.

"We need to protect our core - education and horticultural and try to get through this without layoffs or furloughs," she said.

"That’s what we’re working towards. Without that we’re nothing."

Borough President-elect Marty Markowitz is aware of the dire situation being faced by Brooklyn’s cultural institutions.

"Obviously my objective will be to try to minimize the effect to our organizati­ons," said Markowitz. "I will develop a strong working relationship with our new mayor, but we’ll have to be more aggressive in getting private funding both from foundations and the private sector - they are also challenged, but we have to do that. Not only the large institutions, but the small institutions have been hurt too, and they’re just as valuable as the big guys."

"Part of the problem, is that this may only be the beginning," said Pamela Billig, director of the Brooklyn Arts Council, which re-grants funding to grassroots arts and cultural organizations. "We don’t have a hint of the size of the damage to corporate or foundation grants yet. All of those funders are having all kinds of requests that are pulling away their resources. We don’t know yet how overwhelming those cuts will be.

"We used to call our seminars for artists, professional development seminars," said Billig. "Now we’re calling them ’survival strategies.’"

Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts, one of the smaller arts groups, with a total budget of $1.4 million, sets "half the budget on ticket sales," said producing director Julie Pareles. "Ticket sales have fallen 25 percent and our government funding (borough president, city and state) has fallen 25 percent."

Pareles said that although Brooklyn Center has not cut personnel, they have cut as much as they can behind the scenes. "We’ve cut the size of our program books, printing and postage budgets, brochures and everything you can think of," she said. "We cut our Christmas party."

Ironically, many of Brooklyn’s cultural organizations were the first to step forward in the wake of the disaster to offer solace to the community.

Brooklyn Arts Council held a gospel concert; Brooklyn Center donated funds raised at its Veteran’s Day concert to charity; the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Brooklyn Philharmonic joined together for a fundraiser; the Brooklyn Museum of Art lifted its admission fee for several days so the public could enjoy the museum’s "American Identities" exhibition, and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden lifted its admission through October - which Zuk estimates cost the Botanic Garden $45,000.

"That was clearly the right thing to do, perhaps not financially, but morally it was the right thing to do," said Zuk. "People were so in need and appreciative - our attendance was up 20 percent as a result It’s a place where people can be happy and safe and sit in the sunshine. A little reminder of how life had been before Sept. 11."
Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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