Lack of support takes toll on arts council

To get federal help, the council had to use trust money.
Monday, April 5, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:07 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

Even Guam, the 210-square-mile U.S. territory in the Pacific Ocean, was allocated more money per person for the arts than Missouri in fiscal 2004. In fact, so was every other U.S. state and territory.

“Four years ago we were 17th in the country in per-capita spending for the arts,” said Mary McElwain, the newly appointed interim executive director of the Missouri Arts Council. “In 2004 we were dead last in general revenue funds: 50th out of the 50 states and 57th out of states and territories. That is the situation that the arts council faces.”

Executive Director Norree Boyd’s decision to resign and take a position in Tennessee has set off a chain reaction in the leadership of the council. McElwain, who was chairwoman of the council, will take Boyd’s place on an interim basis, and Columbia resident Betty Wilson was elevated from vice chairwoman to chairwoman. Robert Epsten of Kansas City will take Wilson’s place. The appointments were announced by Gov. Bob Holden last week.

Money matters

The council leadership is facing a financial crisis. At the beginning of fiscal 2004, the state allocated the council no general revenue money. In fiscal 2003, the council had received $3.9 million.

The council each year allocates the vast majority of its general revenue money as grants to Missouri arts groups.

“Our mission is to give grants to support arts education, touring, minority arts, dance and literature,” McElwain said.

With no money, that mission looked to be in danger at the start of the fiscal year, but board members made a hard decision to keep the organization afloat.

“At the beginning of the year, we were faced with no funding,” Wilson said. “But we feel so committed to citizens of Missouri that, reluctantly, we used funds from the cultural trust.”

The council normally avoids using funds from the trust to run its programs.

“The cultural trust was not meant to be used for day-to-day operations,” McElwain said. “That money is there to assist in the creation of endowments and build the infrastructure of the arts industry.”

Access to the trust money was crucial to the council’s survival.

“The only reason that we’re in business is that we took money out of the cultural trust,” McElwain said. “That allowed us to receive our federal dollars.”

The council must prove it is receiving public funding to receive money from its only other source, the National Endowment for the Arts. McElwain hopes to turn things around as the legislature creates a budget for fiscal 2005, which begins July 1.

“My immediate goal as executive director will be to follow through with the budget process,” McElwain said. “If the legislature accepts the governor’s recommendation to give us $500,000 for new general revenue for the programs, that will enable us to get funds from the NEA. ... This money basically keeps us from being on death’s door.”

New funding methods

McElwain and Wilson plan to seek new methods of keeping the council financially stable.

“Funding is an issue we’re going to be facing for many years,” Wilson said. “I’d like the board to establish a task force to look at additional sources of funding or alternate sources of funding so that we don’t have to deplete our cultural trust resources in times of economic decline.”

McElwain also recognizes the need for alternative sources of money.

“I want to raise the level of advocacy in the state and lay the groundwork for recovery of the funds that we’ve lost,” she said. “The Missouri Arts Council is a state program, so we don’t advocate for our own budget. I hope to work with the Missouri Citizens for the Arts. They perform the advocacy function.”

Art in Columbia

Many arts programs in Columbia depend on the council for funding.

Access Arts is a school for all ages that teaches pottery, ceramics, weaving and drawing to Columbia residents, including physically, developmentally and financially disabled people, said founder Naoma Powell.

“We try to make art accessible to everyone,” Powell said of the school, which has an annual enrollment of roughly 2,000 people. “It should not just be for the privileged.”

Access Arts has received money from the council for the past several years. Though it has received as much as $9,000 in a single year, it received under $4,000 the last time around.

“It’s not going to shut us down,” Powell said of the possibility of receiving no council assistance. “But it really helps us out a great deal. They have tried very, very hard to help us with the funding.”

Keeping programs such as Access Arts open is essential, Wilson said.

“We consider arts experience and activities as basic to our civilization.”

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