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Q&A: Celeste Lawson on culturals

Celeste Lawson, executive director of the Arts Council in Buffalo and Erie County, runs the region's primary advocate for the arts. The council distributes state aid to local arts groups and gives them technical assistance. She discussed the state of the arts:

Q: How did Erie County's budget crisis affect the culturals with operating budgets in the $400,000 to $1 million range?

A: Those are organizations that we identified as small to mid-sized, and that includes those organizations that carry the responsibility of interpreting ethnic tradition in our community, African-American, Latino and Native American. The level to which they were affected depends on how much funding they were receiving from Erie County. The range of appropriations in that category is very broad.

For example, the Community Music School, because it is an educational facility, and the county does not fund educational programs, lost key dollars. But it wasn't as large as the African-American Cultural Center, a presenting organization with a chunk of its general operating expense, in excess of $50,000, coming from the county. So the impact of the blow is contingent on the amount of funding each cultural organization received.

Any loss to general operating support, because the opportunities are so limited these days, is really harsh. Our local philanthropic community, at least for that first year, was very amenable to thinking about general operating support.

Q: What is the Arts Council doing to stave off the budget crisis among the smaller cultural institutions?

A: We're fortunate in that we have some opportunities for smaller organizations directly from the New York State Council on the Arts. . . . We also have a partnership with Key Bank that allows us to do some funding for those organizations. We are also involved in an initiative out of the New York State Council on the Arts called Legacy for Tomorrow, which is focused on trying to help organizations of color devise long-term strategies and tools for their capacity-building. We have also acquired support from the Americans for the Arts to conduct an economic impact survey measuring exactly what contribution the arts are making in the Buffalo, Erie County and Niagara regions.

Q: How endangered are the culturals outside the "Big Three"?

A: Some of the larger institutions are equally concerned, because their losses are significant and even the funding that they did receive from the county, with the exception of one or two organizations, is nowhere near what they are accustomed to. Like any other crisis, that impact shows up in the longer run. My example is, you get a pink slip at work and you lose your job. You don't run home and sell your house. You try to figure out how long you can stay in your house, based on an adjusted lifestyle. It may be a few years before you discover whether you can keep your house. It takes a little while for disaster to sink in. And that's where we are. We're still in the wait-and-see mode.

Q: How can the black culturals get on the radar screen?

A: This speaks to the Legacy for Tomorrow, made possible with a grant from Special Arts Services, a program of the New York State Council on the Arts. It's not just for African-American organizations. It's for Caribbean, Latino and Native American cultural organizations. One of the goals is to help these groups develop tools to leverage value and information. Through the legacy program, we're working with some of the visual and performing arts of color to develop tools for strengthening their capacity and ability.

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