Money for Something

The polyglot makeup of Miami's population shapes culture in a city where, increasingly, the performing arts, museums, and the presence of the film industry function as a draw for tourism, a tool for the renewal of depressed areas such as downtown, and, overall, a catalyst for improving the quality of urban life. While New York City embodies the cosmopolitan spirit, Los Angeles sports Hollywood flash, and San Francisco wires for the future, Miami personifies a New World sensibility.

Diversity serves as the current watchword -- proclaimed in concert programs, exhibition catalogues, and opening speeches -- in the campaign to broaden Miami's reputation as an international arts center. Dade County's 700 arts organizations often cite artistic pluralism in their pleas for financial assistance. While some citizens still grumble about "too many Spaniards" in Florida, and some Miami-based male Anglo artists say they feel out of the loop lately, local officials, business leaders, and arts administrators generally contend that the city should be a multicultural model, and that such an image can be projected through the arts.

However, that kind of cultural diversity cannot exist without public funding. Nonprofit institutions and arts organizations ensure pluralistic artistic representation and democratic access to arts events. These organizations, which depend on government support, allow for art of a popular and participatory nature. Through them we have access not just to commercial art, but to avant-garde expression, not just traveling productions of dated Broadway musicals, but experimental and community theater; they also provide children's arts classes, inner-city school programs, visiting artists' workshops, major traveling museum shows, and outdoor public art. Right now, on both a federal and local level, funding for these efforts faces a serious threat. Community support for them remains crucial.

"It's very frustrating to see how many people attend a nonprofit event who do not understand what government funding for the arts means," observes Rem Cabrera, grants administrator for the Dade County Cultural Affairs Council. "We have an enormous job as Americans to educate people about how the arts function. We are currently facing a major federal and local crisis in the arts."

With Newt Gingrich installed as Speaker of the House, the Republicans have made clear their intention to abolish funding for federally supported cultural programs. The most reactionary among them (Jesse Helms, for one) have been attacking freedom of expression in the visual arts for years on ideological grounds, but they've based their recent arguments on economics. The greatest immediate threat concerns the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), support for which Gingrich has proposed cutting off. This year, in addition to providing funding for the three agencies, Congress also must reauthorize their existence. Over the next few months, critical votes will take place in several different Congressional committees, as well as on the floor of both the House and Senate.

Turning off the federal funding tap has a direct effect on the arts in South Florida. For example, it means the eventual demise of New Forms Florida, a regional artists' program that funds painters, photographers, performers, musicians, and others.

"The regional New Forms grants were established as a way of reaching under-served arts communities and minority communities, in order to create a national body of work that questions traditional forms and traditional aesthetics," explains Jenni Person, program director at the South Florida Art Center. "New Forms Florida grants have been keystones for many local artists. It was the first confirmation of the value of their work and really helped get them started." Without the federal funds, grant money from the Rockefeller and Warhol foundations would keep New Forms Florida alive one more year.

Person strolled Lincoln Road mall with a clipboard at a recent Friday evening gallery walk, distributing information about the funding crisis. "The thing that's most frustrating to me is the argument that art should be self-sufficient," she said with a sigh. "In cultural economics there is an artists' gap. That doesn't make art wrong or less legitimate. It just means that it doesn't fall into the system that some old white men in suits created. I'm not saying that system is wrong. I'm saying there should be allowances for things that don't fit into the system as it was planned. The first thing we have to do is to change the perception that public funding for art is charity, or that it's elitist, or bad. One way to do that is for people to study economics more seriously and realize how much revenue the arts generate, how many jobs they provide, and how much they put back into the community."

Many Dade arts organizations receive little or no direct funding from the NEA or NEH. But most benefit in some way from those endowments. Kate Rawlinson, associate curator at the Center for the Fine Arts, figures at least 30 CFA exhibitions have been funded by either or both of federal programs.

"People don't realize the mileage that each NEA dollar gets," adds Amy Cappellazzo, director of the MDCC Wolfson Galleries. "Through traveling exhibitions, we're benefiting tremendously from the secondary economy of NEA funding."

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