Last May, after years of treating cultural groups like so many pests to be swatted away, the City of Buffalo finally decided to chuck them some change.
Though the money the city allocated wasn’t much – $200,000, to be divided up by cultural organizations and anti-violence groups – it seemed like a good start.
But almost a year later, none of that money has been distributed.
In fact, the city has not even released an official application for those funds. Back in mid-February, the city’s Arts Commission prematurely sent out an application form and asked organizations to file them by March 1.
Cultural groups – accustomed to tight deadlines imposed by disorganized governments – scrambled to get their information together for the city. But a few days later, in the latest sign of its ineffectuality, the commission revoked the application and promised to send out a new one. And after that? Radio silence.
Requests from cultural groups to the city’s Arts Commission for more information were ignored or evaded. Attempts to figure out why the process had stalled were fruitless. My own appeals to the Arts Commission for more information were first ignored, then politely dodged.
On Friday, when I finally got City Hall spokesman Michael DeGeorge on the phone, he said the money had been tied up in city’s legal department and would be forthcoming by the end of the year. That’s progress, but it won’t exactly come as music to cultural groups’ ears, as the funds were supposed to be for a fiscal year that is already half over.
“The Law Department has been working out logistics for this joint process,” DeGeorge said. “The applications are ready.” He went on to say that a request for proposals “has either just gone out or is on the verge of going out.”
“At the end of the day,” he continued, “the groups will have a chance to apply for the money.”
Which specific day was DeGeorge referring to? He didn’t say.
At the time of the city’s announcement last spring, I took this change of heart as a promising sign that City Hall was finally responding to the dawning cultural consciousness that emerged in the wake of Erie County’s 2010-11 arts funding crisis.
After I wrote a critical column last spring, Mayor Byron Brown’s handlers called me in for a meeting with the mayor, during which he made a convincing case that his administration was committed to improving the cultural landscape of the city. He detailed the city’s funding of additional security for festivals and cultural events, the work of its (albeit underfunded and largely powerless) Arts Commission and the various other large and small ways it feeds the city’s cultural engines.
And most promisingly to me, he seemed knowledgeable about the way Denver, under then-Mayor John Hickenlooper, used culture to transform itself from fly-over territory into a must-visit cultural destination.
But from where we’re standing now, with the city dragging its feet on a promise cultural groups were hoping would help them through a difficult year when funding has been slow to trickle in from other sources, it’s hard to take Brown’s professed commitment to culture seriously.
“I think that on the one hand, the fact that they’re trying to establish a process for this, that’s a good thing,” said Tod A. Kniazuk, director of advocacy-driven Arts Services Initiative. “On the other hand, you know, at some point, you just gotta come up with your best process and a good timeline and get going. This was money that was approved months and months ago.”
It’s long past time for the city to deliver on its long-deferred promise.