New Haven arts funding faces uncertain future

Arts organizations in New Haven like the People’s Arts Collective benefit from state and local funding.
Arts organizations in New Haven like the People’s Arts Collective benefit from state and local funding. Photo by Jennifer Cheung.

As Dave Greco, co-founder of New Haven’s Arte Inc., prepares to host his organization’s annual Family Arts and Culture Workshops on Oct. 5, he said he looks forward to a day of parent-child bonding, complete with a variety of fine arts workshops. The event, which has been held annually since 2004, has seen a larger turnout each year, with 447 community members attending in 2012.

To host the event, Arte applied for and received a $1,080 grant from the 2013-’14 Mayor’s Community Arts Grants, announced on July 15, which awarded roughly $25,500 to fund 25 local arts projects and initiatives. But while Greco said he is pleased to have received the grant, the Family Arts and Culture Workshops will cost thousands of dollars to host, a significantly higher amount than the grant provides.

The financial obstacles Arte faces in hosting these workshops are reflective of a larger struggle for government arts funding that has affected many other Community Arts Grants recipients over the past two years as they worked to expand their organizations’ outreach and programming variety. Only two of seven leaders within local arts organizations interviewed said their grant fully covered the expenses of the project for which it was intended. None of the seven said their organization was able to depend primarily on the city for overall funding. And although all seven groups reported growth in their size and outreach during the past two years, only one has seen a steady increase in state funding during that period.

“I think the arts are a great economic engine for the city,” Bregamos Community Theater Founder Rafael Ramos said. “They make the community more vibrant and are therapeutic for some. … But especially in this economic environment, the arts are usually one of the first to get cut.”

But three local organization leaders said the outcome of the upcoming New Haven mayoral race on Nov. 5 will determine whether the city’s current level of support for the arts will continue. And while the amount of Connecticut state arts funding for New Haven arts organizations has increased by roughly $300,000 in the past three years, the overall level of support for the state’s arts organizations has decreased more than $3 million since 2008. Simultaneously, a federal proposal calling for a 49 percent decrease in the National Endowment for the Arts may threaten state governments’ ability to fund such programs, Arts Council of Greater New Haven Director Cindy Clair said. As a result, all seven leaders emphasized the uncertainty in relying on government funding for their arts organizations.

Changing Priorities
Daniel Forrest, director of arts at the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, said that over the past two years, the state has started to prioritize grants funding specific projects over more general grants covering organizations’ operating costs. For the next round of funding, which will last from Jan. 1, 2014 to June 30, 2014, the state plans to use roughly $575,000 of its $971,000 in new grant money for the New Haven arts to fund specific projects, he explained, adding that only $190,000 will be given to organizations to cover general operating costs.

Two local arts organization leaders said this change in state-level funding priorities has put their groups at risk of losing funding or prevented them from applying for additional funding. LEAP, a long-term youth leadership development program that serves nearly 700 students between the ages of six and 23, receives the majority of its funding — for both operating costs and specific projects — from the state. Lucy Diaz, director of development at LEAP, said that at one point during the last three years, the organization was eliminated from the governor’s proposed annual budget and was only kept on after members of the state senate, including mayoral candidate Toni Harp ARC ’78, fought strongly for its retention.

Julie Trachtenberg, director of development and marketing at the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, said that because the organization receives funding from the state’s annual budget, it is no longer able to apply for many individual grant opportunities at the state level. And since the Arts Council is a large agency serving a broad range of artists and art organizations, it does not receive grant money for individual projects from the city. Consequently, the council currently receives roughly 75 percent of its funding from individual donors, corporate sponsors and private foundations.

“Not that we wouldn’t appreciate being supported by the city, but those grants are for smaller organizations that need a finite amount of money for a specific project,” Trachtenberg explained.

The prioritization of project-specific funding has also extended to smaller local groups. Greco, the co-founder of Arte, noted that his organization receives vastly different levels of funding for different purposes. He said the largest grant Arte receives from the community is for ASAP, an after-school program that combines the arts with standard academic subjects such as math and science. But while these specialized programs are receiving consistently satisfactory funding, Greco said the group only receives a small amount of government funding for general operating costs.

A ‘Stamp of Approval’
Three Community Arts Grants recipients interviewed were awarded their grant for the purpose of hosting multi-weeklong programs that will lead to long-term community impact, rather than individual events. All three said that while they were not dependent on the grants for their financial survival, the awards are still significant in symbolizing the city’s commitment to community improvement.
One recipient, the Bregamos Theater, was given $1,200 to host a four- to six-week summer theater program in 2014 that will teach fundamental acting skills to 10-13 year old students in the New Haven area. Sharece Sellem, artistic director of Bregamos, said the program will be limited to 15 students and be completely free of charge.

Sellem added that the program’s impact will revolve around fostering solidarity in addition to teaching acting techniques. She cited the example of a young actor who told her that though he was not very interested in theater, he still enjoyed being part of Bregamos’ last production because he felt like he was part of a community. The program would still have been launched if Bregamos had not received the grant, she explained, but the grant is important in showing the city’s awareness of the group’s contribution to the city.

“We kind of got a stamp of approval in a way,” Sellem said. “[The grant] validates who we are and what we are about.”

Kenneth Reveiz ’12, co-founder of the New Haven Free Skool, said the $500 he received from the grant allowed him to host the Free Skool’s summer session, which lasted from July 15 to Aug. 24. The classes in the program are taught by members of the community and have ranged from “Mexican Salads” to “Human Sexuality.” Reveiz noted that all classes are free and that over 600 people have participated in the program across the three sessions since its founding.

He explained that since the costs of running the program are relatively low, it most likely would survive regardless of whether it received the grant. Still, Reveiz feels that the Community Arts grant is a promising sign that the city supports the mission of the Free Skool, which is to empower both its students by providing them with learning opportunities they otherwise would not have and its instructors through providing the chance to serve as leadership figures.

“Coming from Yale, it is expected that I know how to lead because I have had many opportunities to do so, but for many people that doesn’t exist,” Reveiz said.

Despite these uncertainties, Diaz and Reveiz said the local government has become increasingly supportive of arts groups over recent years.

“We are seeing more support for grassroots and community outreach organizations,” Reveiz said. “The city is really taking [the arts] seriously.”

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