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Arts Advocates Fight for Funding

February 26, 2010

By Veronica Garabelli
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The arts are often ignored in politics, but that wasn’t the case at the Virginia Capitol last week.

On Thursday, artists from across the state waited outside the House of Delegates Chamber, a line sprawling over two floors and around the stairs. Their message to legislators was clear, indicated by a simple name tag on their shirts: “Save the Arts.”

The artists converged on the Capitol to oppose a Feb. 21 recommendation by the House Appropriations Committee. The committee voted 15-7 to cut next year’s funding for the Virginia Commission for the Arts by 50 percent and to eliminate the agency by July 1, 2011. The commission currently receives more than $4 million a year from the state. It uses the money to provide grants to arts groups throughout Virginia.

On the other hand, the Senate Finance Committee adopted the proposed budget submitted by former Gov. Tim Kaine. It would continue funding for the Virginia Commission for the Arts. House and Senate negotiators now are trying to come up with a compromise state budget for the next two years.

Thursday was Arts Advocacy Day, organized by a group called Virginians for the Arts. The organizers said they were delighted with the turnout.

Beth Temple, a board member for Virginians for the Arts, said she hopes the event will make a difference in whether the Virginia Commission for the Arts survives.

“I think we can demonstrate the arts have had an effect in almost every legislative district,” Temple said. “We are trying to get our legislators to understand the economic importance of art – not just the aesthetic importance.”

Many arts groups already are struggling because the economic downturn has hurt their finances.

David Briggs, a member of the board of directors of the Signature Theatre in Alexandria, said the theater has simplified productions and cut staff because of a decrease in funding. Briggs also said such cutbacks have a ripple effect on the local economy.

“When a theater is dark and there is a restaurant next door, the restaurant is not as busy,” Briggs said.

Heidi and Sam Rugg of Barefoot Puppets in Richmond brought their children to the Capitol for Arts Advocacy Day. They say their puppet-show audiences have declined since the recession.

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Heidi Rugg said she was puzzled by one thing.

“We’re standing in this beautiful building, with beautiful architecture and art, and politicians can stand in this building and want to cut the arts?” she said. “I can’t wrap my head around that.”

Meanwhile in the House Chamber, delegates debated proposed budget cuts on everything from health care and education to the arts and parks. Legislators must cut $4 billion in spending to balance the state budget. The House voted 61-38 Thursday to approve a proposed budget containing the House Appropriations Committee’s recommendation to slash funding for the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

In a speech on the House floor, Delegate Lacey Putney, I-Bedford, said he had not seen such a grave budget situation in his 49 years as member of the House.

“I am reminded of the quote that ‘Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die,’ ” said Putney, chairman of the Appropriations Committee. “I guess the budget equivalent of that saying would be that everyone wants a balanced budget, but nobody wants to cut it.”