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Cuts reflect lack of confidence in Arts Council

If the long, sad story of Studio Arena Theatre's closure taught us anything, it is that good intentions and good management don't necessarily go hand in hand.

It's a lesson that the Arts Council in Buffalo and Erie County is now learning the hard way -- after the latest in a series of funding sources rebuked the agency in June. The past several years have seen huge funding cuts for the agency from Erie County, the Oishei Foundation and now the New York State Council on the Arts due in part to serious questions about its management and effectiveness.

In June, after coasting along on five years of continuous support from the New York State Council on the Arts, the local arts council and its Executive Director Celeste Lawson got a harsh wake-up call. The state arts council, dismayed by a troubling audit the local arts council included with its application, cut the agency's operating support for the coming year by almost 75 percent. It also decided to discontinue support entirely at the end of the current fiscal year and to relocate its significant regranting program, which distributes money to individual artists and small arts groups in Erie County, to another agency in 2011.

In filing its funding request to the state arts council, the local arts council left out a letter from auditor Toski, Schaefer & Co. expressing "substantial doubt about the Council's ability to continue" as a financially viable organization. When the local arts council finally sent the missing pages, it became obvious to the state arts council that the organization was in serious trouble.

Heather Hitchens, executive director of the New York State Council on the Arts since August 2007, said the council's decision was based on clear criteria that have been set out by the council, and which the local arts council plainly failed to fulfill.

"That letter was the cause of serious concerns among council members," Hitchens said. "It raised the question of whether the audit was valid. My council members are all very interested in public policy. They take their roles very seriously and they're like, 'Look -- this is the public dime here and we have an audit that stands before us and says this.' I don't see how we can move forward under these circumstances."

There's no way to know for sure if the local arts council was trying to pull one over on the state arts council. But given the local arts council's downward slide over the last few years, this kind of sketchy activity is cause for major concern about its ability to continue on a day-to-day basis, much less meet its mandate of promoting Buffalo's cultural assets, encouraging tourism and building the arts economy of Western New York.

Over the past decade, both Erie County and the Oishei Foundation significantly cut or pulled funding. Though neither organization would speak on the record about why they pulled support, their actions speak loudly enough.

The reasons behind the drop in support go far beyond a nationwide decrease in money for cultural organizations. There has been a gradual but definite loss of faith in the local art council's ability to do its job.

The local arts council's 2005 tax return tells part of the story. From 2002 to 2005, the council's funding was slashed by nearly half a million dollars. Only part of that decline is attributable to shrinking arts funding from government, corporate and foundation sources.

The arts council, for its part, responded to the state council's concerns with the silent treatment. Exhaustive requests to interview Lawson and board president Lynda K. Stephens about the situation were repeatedly declined, though a copy of the audit that raised so much concern was provided just as this column went to press.

There is no doubt that Lawson, the council's executive director, is a fierce supporter of the arts in all their breadth and power. She speaks more ably and eloquently about the ability of art to effect change and empower individuals than anyone in Western New York, and her ability to curry favor with politicians and movers and shakers is legendary. But our region's cultural engines, now fueled by the sort of excitement and momentum we haven't seen for decades, need an advocacy group capable of keeping its financial house in order.

"I'm so impressed with Western New York and Buffalo in particular. It's got so much civic energy," Hitchens said. "There is potential to have a very strong board in Buffalo. And yes, the arts council should be at the forefront. And I think there's a lot of frustration in the community that they haven't been for a while."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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