Budget crisis threatens arts funding


By Mark Greer and Kendah El-Ali

Arts education funding is threatened by government budget cuts despite research that shows it is an important teaching tool.

The program is called Upward Bound, yet its funding is anything but.

The national program has a branch run by Columbia College in Chicago and usually expects a 2-3 percent annual increase. But the 10-year program, which offers arts education for 70 public high school students, is seeing no increase for the 2003 fiscal year.

"Since the funding is so tight and the government hasn't marked up the budget, we don't anticipate new programs or funding for additions [to existing] programs," Upward Bound director Craig Kirsch says. "How do you account for staff increases, let alone programming increases, or just the cost of living?"

Upward Bound has already enrolled five students beyond its limit, with 15 more on the waiting list, and that "barely scratches the surface of all the kids who are eligible for these programs," Kirsch says.

Upward Bound is not the only youth organization trying to do more with less. The Illinois arts community is facing the first state funding cuts to programs in four years. Illinois has a 2003 budget shortfall of more than $2 billion. Incoming Gov. Rod Blagojevich has said he will try to reduce the deficit by trimming government bureaucracy rather than raising taxes, leaving the arts education community uncertain about future funding.

These cuts come at a time when many schools have had to scale back on their own arts curriculum and have come to depend on outside programs to help. All of this flies in the face of educational research, which now shows kids learn in very different ways. And for many, arts is a key connection to learning and can improve not only math and reading but help students gain confidence and learn how to express their thoughts and ideas.

But with the state budget looking bleak, all anyone in the arts community can do is wait and cut. The Sun Foundation, based near Washburn, Ill., about 30 miles northeast of Peoria, has turned the three-person staff into volunteers. Robert Ericksen, executive director of the 28-year-old arts organization, says, "It's really hard. As soon as you start to select programs to cut, then you start to disappear off the map," he says.

This summer, Gov. George Ryan trimmed state agencies and cut the Illinois Arts Council--in charge of developing state arts--by nearly 5 percent to $19.6 million. It is a national trend, since overall state funding for arts agencies shrank by $28 million in 2002 to $419 million, according to the Washington-based National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

"Literally every day there is a story about a problem," says William Rattner, executive director for Lawyers for the Creative Arts, a nonprofit organization that provides free legal services to smaller Illinois arts groups. "The arts and culture community is a vast community across the state, and most organizations are small. Hundreds of arts groups can't take a hit--we can't take a hit--and right now they're on a hand-to-mouth basis."

Blagojevich said while campaigning he would support policies to increase funding for arts education, according to a survey of candidates by the Illinois Arts Alliance, an advocacy coalition. He has done so in the past. Blagojevich voted to increase the National Endowment for the Arts budget in two tight votes while in Congress. In all, 77 percent of candidates who responded to the arts alliance survey supported arts development. But Rattner says he still is worried.

"I know Blagojevich says good things [about the arts], but there are so many people involved in [the funding process], and the arts community is divided and not heavily heard from," he says. "Politicians aren't going to say, ‘Down with the arts,' but what they say and what they do are two different things."

Mark Greer and Kendah El-Ali are graduate students and write for Northwestern University's Medill News Service.

Kids Eat Chicago

Copyright 2017 Wednesday Journal Inc. All rights reserved. Chicago web development by liQuidprint