Budget cuts to Arizona arts commission impact arts organizations, small and large

(Francesco Onorato/DD)
The Arizona Commission on the Arts has had to reduce and discontinue grants to arts organizations following a $1 million budget cut. The commission’s total funding could face a 30-year low. (Francesco Onorato/DD)

The Arizona Commission on the Arts is facing a $1 million budget cut following the state budget that passed on March 12. The cuts will affect arts organizations across the state, such as the Rising Youth Theatre, Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona and The Rag Collection.

The grants the Arizona Commission on the Arts distributes to these organizations and others will be put on hiatus, discontinued or reduced. The exact percentage on these reductions have not been confirmed.

One grant that affected a number of organizations was the Arizona Art Tank, modeled after the popular ABC show “Shark Tank.” It will be put on indefinite hiatus.

The grant encouraged organizations to create innovative ways to involve the community in the arts and “do something new,” said Rusty Foley, executive director of the Arizona Citizens for the Arts, a non-profit that advocates for the arts in public policy.

“I mean (the Arizona Commission on the Arts members) don’t have the money now to do that sort of thing … That, I think, is a loss,” Foley said. “The dollar-and-cents loss is one thing. But, really, the loss of the kind of good work that can be done in the community is really the important thing.”

After losing about $20 million in funding between 2009-2012, the Arizona Commission on the Arts received an additional $1 million in fiscal years 2014 and 2015. The money came from interest accrued on the state’s Rainy Day Fund. However, that money was not included in the state budget that passed last month.

“With the loss of this allocation, the Arts Commission’s total funding for next fiscal year will be comparable to levels reached during the depths of the recession, and could even hit a 30-year low,” according to the Arizona Commission on the Arts’ press release. A representative from the commission declined to comment.

The governor’s office was contacted multiple times regarding the budget cuts but did not return any messages.

Smaller arts organizations, such as the Rising Youth Theatre and The Rag Collection, could lose many new programs and resources they established in the past few years.

Rising Youth Theatre, located at the Phoenix Center for the Arts on Third and Moreland streets, received its Art Tank grant in fiscal year 2014 and a Community Investment Grant in fiscal year 2015. Only a few years old, the organization used the grant to produce “The Light Rail Plays” series for the last two years.

Co-founder and artistic director Sarah Sullivan described the funding as a “springboard grant.”

“It gave us access to create something amazing and original and that we wouldn’t have had the resources to make happen without the commission,” Sullivan said. “I think the loss of that kind of program is such a huge loss for our committee … There’s less opportunity for the non-major arts organizations to have the kind of money and the kind of funding and the opportunity to create something new and innovative and different.”

The Rag Collection offers free art workshops, mentors and safe spaces for youth. The organization used its grant to partner with Alhambra High School in central Phoenix and to help connect the students to the community.

Rag Collection Executive Director Noel D’Avy said roughly 90 percent of the Alhambra students they work with say they’ve connected to downtown through the organization.

“We get to introduce them to their city and say, ‘This is yours. This is your arts district. These are your resources,’” D’Avy said.

The Art Tank grant allowed The Rag Collection to be creative and inventive with the community, even as a small organization whose reach may not be as large as the Phoenix Art Museum’s, D’Avy said.

D’Avy said the future for organizations relying on the grants is now unclear. It will be several weeks until any organization that applied for a grant knows how much money they will still receive, but she said she has a pretty good idea that the funding will not be there for The Rag Collection next year.

“It’s discouraging because we probably know we won’t have as many opportunities to start new projects with more youth,” she said. “Because a lot of us are even knocking on the same doors for foundations and to individual donors, so we’re all knocking a little harder on those doors. The community feels the strain.”

Smaller organizations are not the only ones affected. Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona is a 38-year-old statewide organization with several hundred-thousand dollars of revenue each year. They’ve partnered with major cultural institutions such as the Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona Theatre Company and Arizona Opera.

Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona was the recipient of a Community Investment Grant, as well as a grant that focused on assisting schools, such as developing a school-based curriculum for under-performing students in schools like Children’s First Academy in Phoenix.

“(The school) focused on children that are experiencing homelessness, and we provide our curriculum for that school,” Development Director Katia Brown said.

Though she said it was too early to really see an effect on the downtown arts community, Brown acknowledged that many organizations, including Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona, will feel a change because of the cuts, she said.

Support for the arts impacts more than just an organization’s funding, Foley said. It shows the government’s commitment to the arts.

“At a time when arts orgs are struggling to generate contributions from any source, any loss makes a difference,” she said. “Government funding does represent a commitment to arts and culture as a necessary investment in the health of our communities, so it does mean something when that investment is not made.”

The loss of the Art Tank grants is a huge blow to Rising Youth Theatre and The Rag Collection. In addition to losing support for that organization, it affects how innovative and creative an agency can be when connecting the community to the arts.

Arizona Citizens for the Arts will continue to work with the Ducey administration and Legislature to restore support the arts, especially as the economy recovers and tax revenues become available, Foley said.

“We know that there are many legislators who believe that the arts are an important part of the community. They are good for economic development; they are good for community development,” Foley said. “The governor has called arts and culture a tremendous asset in building the reputation of Arizona and the quality of life in Arizona. We are hoping that as we go forward in the future, we’re going to see some recovery and funding.”

Correction: April 24, 2015:

A previous version of this story misstated the mission of the Arizona Citizen for the Arts organization. The group advocates for the arts in public policy; it does not serve as the public relations agency for the Arizona Commission on the Arts.

Contact the reporter at Nikiana.Medansky@asu.edu