Massachusetts representatives line up votes to boost funding for cultural programs
BOSTON >> Though the budget proposed last week by the House Ways and Means Committee would cut funding for the Massachusetts Cultural Council by around 28 percent, more than half of House lawmakers have signed on in support of a measure that would restore that money and more to the agency's budget for next year.
In his $39.55 billion fiscal 2017 budget, Gov. Charlie Baker recommended level funding of $14 million for the cultural council, a state agency that supports the arts, humanities and interpretive sciences. The leaner House budget would appropriate $10 million, an amount the council says would lead to reductions in grants to nonprofit cultural organizations, local cultural councils, youth programs and artist fellowships.
Rep. Cory Atkins, a Concord Democrat who serves as House chair of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development, filed a budget amendment seeking to bump the cultural council funding up to $17 million. The House plans to begin debate on the budget and its more than 1,300 amendments starting on Monday.
Atkins' amendment, originally filed with 21 co-sponsors in the House, had been endorsed by 97 lawmakers as of Thursday afternoon, according to the arts advocacy group MASSCreative.
"We're really encouraged by that, and I think it really does show that the work we support happens in every community," Greg Liakos, the Massachusetts Cultural Council's director of communications, told the News Service. "It doesn't happen just in Boston or just in the Berkshires, and that's one of the great values of the local cultural councils is they take a relatively small amount of money, and I think legislators recognize that."
The council's two biggest programs, Liakos said, are its cultural investment portfolio and grants to local cultural councils. Through grant funding, the statewide council supports 329 community-based cultural councils across Massachusetts, which are run by local volunteers.
The community investment portfolio includes operating support grants for 384 nonprofit arts, humanities and science organizations. Those grants span in amount from about $2,500 to $55,000 and recipients "range from the big ones like the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Plimoth Plantation and the Museum of Science down to small community theaters and community orchestras," Liakos said.
Liakos said the council's budget has fluctuated throughout the years, with grant amounts rising and falling along with state appropriations. According to figures provided by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the agency's funding hit $19.1 million in 2002 and dropped to $7.2 million the following fiscal year.
The $14 million appropriated in 2016 represented a $2 million hike from 2015 and was the fifth consecutive year the budget increased.
"If it were cut from fourteen to ten million, we'd have to make some very difficult choices about which programs would be cut and by how much, and of course it's the same set of decisions when you get more money," Liakos said. "But there's no question that a cut of that size would definitely impact our two biggest grant programs, the organizations and the local cultural councils. There'd be no way to avoid it."
The council receives about 90 percent of its funding from the state and the rest comes from an annual grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Liakos said.
MASSCreative executive director Matt Wilson called the House funding recommendation a "deeply disappointing -- and abrupt -- u-turn" from investment in arts institutions and local cultural councils statewide.
"The creative community is a critical partner in building a vibrant, healthy, and equitable Massachusetts," Wilson said in a statement. "It makes vital contributions to the economic development of neighborhoods and downtowns around the state, particularly in Gateway Cities."
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