Starving Artists Carping

When the battle for grant money is on, the gloves come off

Struggling local arts groups started snapping like hungry hyenas last month when they learned the grants they expected to receive from Miami Beach were slated to be cut by $1000 each. Their hackles were raised even higher when they discovered the money would be going to Judy Drucker.

Drucker, who leads the venerable Concert Association of Florida and whose name is commonly preceded by "diva" or "impresaria," would hardly seem to be a candidate for charitable pity, at least in the eyes of much smaller and financially vulnerable arts organizations. And in these bleak economic times, when money is short and tempers can be even shorter, arts managers are ready to slug it out at the mere suggestion of unfair advantage.

How tough is it out there for nonprofits? Consider this: The Republican-controlled Florida legislature, in its May budget session, slashed the budget for cultural and arts programs by more than two-thirds, from $29 million to $8.7 million. All the more reason for outfits like the Rhythm Foundation and the South Florida Composers Alliance to peg their hopes on contributions from the Miami Beach Cultural Arts Council (CAC), which doles out about $500,000 in grants annually to some 70 programs with ties to the Beach.

Culture maven Judy Drucker, head of the Concert Association of Florida, declined to sit for a photograph but did supply this recent picture
andrew melick
Culture maven Judy Drucker, head of the Concert Association of Florida, declined to sit for a photograph but did supply this recent picture

The first stage of the grant process, a lengthy review by "peer panels," this year concluded with recommendations for large increases to many smaller groups such as the Center for Folk and Community Art, which received $3000 from the CAC last year. In July one of the panels advocated an increase to $6000.

While the recommended grants still must be approved by the full arts council and the Miami Beach City Commission, things were looking up for some cultural organizations in what had been a relatively down year. "When I heard we might get $10,000, I was like, 'Great! This kind of makes up for what we lost from the state,'" says Composers Alliance marketing director Susan Caraballo, whose state grant money dropped from $7400 to $2300 this year.

The CAC, funded by tourist tax revenues and interest from a multimillion-dollar investment account, is composed of eleven Beach residents appointed by the mayor and city commission. On July 11 they met to discuss the peer panels' recommendations. Grant committee chairwoman Pauline Winick unexpectedly suggested that eleven of the proposed grants be reduced by $1000 each. Not huge money, but not small potatoes either, especially since some of the arts groups get by on very modest budgets. The resulting $11,000, Winick said, should go to Drucker's Concert Association, whose annual budget of $4 million dwarfs most other grantees. The peer panel thought Drucker should receive $13,000; Winick thought otherwise -- $24,000 was more appropriate. Council colleagues present at the meeting agreed.

Angry administrators from some of the eleven affected organizations immediately began zapping the CAC with caustic e-mails and letters, a reaction perhaps less indicative of naturally melodramatic tendencies than of a beleaguered arts community where any mention of money is likely to provoke bared teeth. For example, Stewart Stewart, executive director of the Center for Folk and Community Art, sent an outraged e-mail to CAC members and local arts groups blasting the decision as being "far worse than deplorable."

The Composers Alliance was among those slated to lose $1000. "It's more than we got last year," Caraballo admits, but she's quick to add, her voice rising: "It still doesn't justify them slashing our money."

Rhythm Foundation director Laura Quinlan, also on Winick's hit list, this year saw her state money tumble from $12,000 to $3000. She says she was thrilled to learn the CAC peer panel had recommended a grant of $14,000, but even reduced by $1000 she's still grateful. She wishes, however, that the decision to alter the amounts had been handled differently. "We're happy because we got more money than last year," she says, "but grant-writing is really hard and the whole peer-panel review process was long and exacting -- reallocating that money circumscribed the whole process."

Winick, clearly weary of frustrated artists with open hands, counters: "Hey, I'd like them all to have more money, but the best we can hope for is to spread the discontent evenly. I would recommend they don't spend the money until they have it. I mean, it's not like they lost this money. They never had it." She also points out that all eleven affected groups will still receive bigger CAC grants than they did last year.

None of this is a done deal. The Miami Beach commissioners can hand out the grants however they see fit at a September 10 meeting, and grantees intend to remind them of CAC guidelines regarding how much money is supposed to be given to cultural institutions that aren't based in Miami Beach. The Concert Association for years operated from Beach offices and was considered an "anchor" organization, but last year it moved to Miami. Drucker's new and improved $24,000 grant therefore exceeds the CAC's $20,000 cap for groups headquartered off the Beach. In effect, Winick's committee created a new grant category for Drucker. "It does recognize the extraordinary work of the Concert Association," Winick said at the July 11 meeting.

"Look, we had to move our offices, but we still do most of our performances on the Beach," Drucker says. "We have eleven concerts and three ballets at the Jackie Gleason Theater next season."

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