This week, the Republican members of the Erie County Legislature, cowered by cheap fear tactics and afflicted with the worst sort of blind ignorance, voted against the future of Western New York.
Their decision to cut funding for arts organizations, grounded in the antiquated and disproven theory that government funding for cultural pursuits is wrong on its face, dealt a major blow to the entire region. The move will come back to bite them later, but for the moment it has thrown a mighty wrench into the incredible momentum that the arts and cultural engines of Western New York have been building for the past 20 years.
In a so-called "deal" which more closely resembled a royal dictum, the Republican caucus and County Executive Chris Collins tried to cast themselves as cultural superheroes. At the last minute on Tuesday -- after Collins' brash attempt to dismiss the Legislature's budget by declaring it "null and void" was itself annulled by a judge -- this confederacy of dunces announced a so-called "public/private partnership" that would see the cultural organizations of Western New York funded with $100,000 of government money and $400,000 from something known as the Fund for the Arts.
On the surface, this might sound to you like a marvelous idea. It was posed to Collins two months ago, and categorically rejected by him. It's now been resurrected at the last minute, when defeat for Collins' cultural gutting looked like a possibility. But this "plan," much like the process that brought us to this point, is nothing more than a thinly disguised piece of theater that allows its architects to look both attuned to their constituency and fiscally responsible.
They are neither, and here's why:
The Fund for the Arts, which was born during the 2004-05 budget crisis to provide emergency funding to Western New York arts organizations that were cut from the budget, was designed to step in during times of crisis. The fund, a collaboration among eight Western New York foundations, was engineered as a stop-gap measure to assist the cultural groups of the region if the government failed to do so. It is not some bottomless supply of private money just waiting to be tapped, but a limited supply of money meant for emergencies and small strategic investments.
The leaders of the fund were hoping that the current crisis wouldn't come. But now, thanks to the six irresponsible legislators who acted out of fear and ignorance instead of the interest of the public they serve, it has.
The Fund for the Arts is a godsend in times when the government abdicates its responsibility to fund the economic growth engine of arts and culture. It is not, as the Republican caucus would have you believe, a permanent solution or "new model" to solve the problem of public arts funding.
In this entire budget battle, a myth about the vast arts sector of Western New York has been gaining steam. "Why," some of the inept lawmakers ask, "aren't theaters and galleries simply asking for more money from foundations, corporations and philanthropists?" The answer, of course, is that the dwindling corporate, foundation and philanthropic resources of Western New York and elsewhere already contribute the majority of funding for these organizations. They are, especially locally, maxed out.
Erie County, in the words of Laurie Dean Torrell of Just Buffalo Literary Center, has long provided a "modest but important" source of revenue for these groups, money they leverage to draw investment from many outside sources.
In that capacity, the county government has long been serving a crucial function as a catalyst for an economically significant growth industry -- not as the administrator of some cultural bread line for special interests. This idea is ridiculous and yet inexplicably pernicious among those who seek any excuse to weasel out of supporting cultural attractions.
Equally wrong is the idea that cultural consumption is small, or only in the province of rich white people. Ask the 1.2 million people who attend events last year at small and midsize groups like the African American Cultural Center, Ujima Theatre, Buffalo City Ballet and others if they are rich white people.
As we have seen in the for-profit corporate sector, which governments have no problem supporting with huge investments, this means that you can be a fiscal conservative and a supporter of meaningful public arts funding at the same time. The two things, as the Legislature's Democrats argued fiercely, eloquently and proudly, are not mutually exclusive.
The cultural organizations, libraries, urban service programs and comptroller's office could have been fully funded this year, with absolutely no tax increases. The only reason they weren't was because of Chris Collins' crippling shortsightedness and the ignorance and fear he spread to a Republican caucus of lemmings.
The yeoman work and heartfelt words of Legislature Democrats was not enough. It's time to hold the enemies of Western New York's vast and underrecognized cultural industry -- the enemies of our collective future -- to account.