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Art in Times of Crisis

Though the economic stimulus to the cultural sector in Texas was scant, for its beneficiaries the funds received were a blessing.

RUMBO/New America Media, Special Report, Lolb Corona Posted: Feb 14, 2010

Editor's Note: This story, which originally appeared in RUMBO, was produced as part of NAM's Stimulus Watch coverage and was funded with a grant from the Open Society Institute. It is part two of a three-part series. You can read part one here

Nicolas Knaello, director
of Arte Publico Press, Ph: Lolbe Corona.
On the desk of Nicolas Kanellos, director of Arte Publico Press, the biggest publisher of Hispanic authors in the country, there are piles and piles of papers that get higher every day. Each one is an application for funds so that this University of Houston publisher may continue with his work.

For Kanellos' publishing house has suffered, like many other organizations, hard blows from the economic crisis.

"We receive grants from foundations and the government, and every day it gets more and more difficult to obtain aid," he said. "But above all, the publishing house lives from sales and the first budgets that get cut are the schools and libraries, our main clients and sources of income."

Sales at Arte Publico Press went down by 25 percent nationwide last year. California, its main market, has been severely affected by the economic slowdown.

In order to maintain publishing house jobs, where 40 people work including designers, translators and students, Kanellos sends letters daily to foundations and businesses to raise funds.

"I'm only asking for $5,000 or $10,000, when I used to ask for up to $400,000 for a project. The intent of the economic Recovery Act was to fight unemployment and we applied for this help. We're using the money they gave us to save two positions. If I had known they were going to give it to us, I would have asked for more," he said.

Arte Publico Press, which also deals with keeping the registry of all the documents written by Hispanics in the United States from the colonization until 1960, received $25,000 in funds from the stimulus approved by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

In support of the cultural sector, ARRA included $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which directly designated $29,925,000 in funds to artistic non-profit organizations so they would create or preserve jobs that were at risk of being eliminated due to the economic crisis. Mainly, each one of these aids was for $25,000 or $50,000.

Out of a total of 2,424 organizations --including museums, symphony orchestras, art schools, dance academies and opera companies-- which requested stimulus funds from the ARRA via the NEA, only 636 artistic institutions received aid nationwide. Twenty of them are located in Texas.

Accordion FestivalThe San Antonio Accordion Festival
received $25,000 from ARRA, Ph: RUMBO.
ARRA and the Arts in Texas

Texas received little funding from ARRA for the arts via the NEA: barely $825,000, less than smaller states with less economic weight. Washington received, $1.2 million, for example, while Massachusetts and Minnesota each received $1 million. The states that received the most funding were New York ($5.7 million), California ($4.5 million) and Pennsylvania ($1.5 million).

Nevertheless, for Texas organizations and artists that did get money, the funds were a blessing.

"These dollars literally saved us," said Pat Jasper, artistic director of the International Accordion Festival in San Antonio, an event that brings accordionists from around the country and the world together during the month of October, giving presentations and workshops on the instrument.

The festival, which is free and draws up to 25,000 people in attendance, received $25,000 in stimulus funding from ARRA.

Jasper said thanks to this money, they not only kept three positions that were at risk of being lost, among them their logistics and promotion coordinator and two program coordinators, but they also avoided asking their collaborators to work for free, since they did not have enough resources with which to pay them.

"Our collaborators were not going to get paid. They were going to work for free, but like any other worker, they need reasonable pay for their work," said the director of the Festival, where 50 people collaborate, of which almost half are Hispanics.

"We're experiencing a lot of stress, but if we don't see a reduction in our resources, if our main foundations keep up our financial aid, and if we keep our salespeople, then the ARRA money will assure the festival in 2010," assured Jasper.

"Art suffers a lot in a recession," said Paula Owen, President of the Southwest School of Art and Craft (SSAC) in San Antonio, a visual arts school that offers study programs to more than 400 adults and children annually. According to her, more than 50 percent of the students are Hispanic and African American.

The $50,000 that the SSAC received from ARRA was used to keep their staff of teachers without changes: Fifty full-time teachers and around 100 assistant art teachers and invited artists. In the school's cultural offering, besides the courses, there are free exhibits and cost-free programs for children and families.

"The so-called cultural industries are the ones who suffer the most from the economic downfall. We operate like any other small business, except that unlike other industries, what we sell is art and our product isn't always valued. Art employees don't work in construction or in a factory, but we pay rent, we buy food and we pay taxes like everyone else," said Owen.

According to studies by Americans for the Arts, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the arts, the more than 100,000 non-profit organizations in the country and their audiences generate $166 billion in economic activity each year and they generate 5.7 million jobs and almost $30 billion in taxes.

Difficult Times

Latino associations and artists are going through particularly hard times due to the crisis. According to preliminary results of a survey on the effects of the economy on Latino cultural organizations carried out by the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture (NALAC) in 2009 and disclosed exclusively to RUMBO, 58.1 percent of the 120 Latino artists interviewed did not expect to meet their income goals for this year and 65 percent of the 64 organizations surveyed did not believe they would reach their budgetary goals either.

"There is a ripple effect that covers the whole economy. We pay royalties to writers and if we don't sell books, there are no royalties for them. But we also hire artists, designers, translators as well as companies that sell paper...it's a domino effect that affects a lot of people. In the long run the lack of resources affects artists and the cultural offering," said Kanellos.

As far as labor, in order to deal with the crisis, 44 percent of the artists opted for taking a job unrelated to the arts. With regards to organizations, 27.1 percent cut programs, 3.4 percent cut staff, and 37.3 percent cut both, according to the NALAC study.

Art and Communities

"Art is a gift to the community and what we offer is free. But it's getting more and more difficult to keep it that way," said Vance Muse, director of Communication at the Menil Foundation, an institution in charge of preserving the collection of philanthropists John and Dominique Menil.

This free museum in Houston received $25,000 in stimulus money from ARRA. It was used for the annual salary of a curator specialized in African art. Ninety people work in this museum and it receives some 100,000 visitors each year.

"Much of the cultural offering is free and if we could not keep offering it, the art would only reach a select group of the population... The fact that ARRA designated $50 million to the NEA is good, but it's only a small fraction (of the $787 billion stimulus). Art has to have more funding, because our contribution to society is to make a community more vibrant," said Owen.

But besides the cultural effects, some people also point to the economic and social effects. "If things continue like this, artistic and cultural organizations will lead to unemployment. Usually salaries in the arts are low and very soon that will have negative effects on after-school programs and community centers and other small and medium-sized institutions whose work is more related to minority populations," said Kanellos.

"People are experiencing tough times and this is when art takes on even greater meaning. During a time when there's no excess money, places are needed where art can be appreciated for free. An artistic area, a music school, a dance company can make a big difference for a family, a community, a neighborhood," concluded Muse.

Related Articles:

Stimulus Leaves Out Latino Arts Organizations

Brooklyn Asks: Where Did the Stimulus Funds Go?

Obama Administration Threatens to Yank Stimulus Funds Over Civil Right

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