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On Thursday afternoon, dozens of cultural organizations gathered in Buffalo Suzuki Strings in North Tonawanda to celebrate the latest round of grants from the New York State Council on the Arts.

The ceremony, which featured performances from local actor Stephen McKinley Henderson and the Buffalo Suzuki Strings Quartet, went off without a hitch. Nearly 50 organizations and artists, mostly small arts groups, towns and villages putting on concert series or launching arts education projects, walked away with about $100,000 in funding.

Spread across so many projects and individual artists, that doesn't sound like an awful lot. But it's enough for the Community Music School to comfortably pull off its “Music for Everyone” concert and workshop series, for Lockport's Palace Theatre School to fund its performing arts education program and for the towns of Brant, Boston and Elma to launch summer concert series. It will also help to shore up the 2013 versions of many community institutions such as Buffalo's Juneteenth Festival, the Colored Musicians Club's Queen City Jazz Festival and the Allentown Association's popular First Fridays Gallery Walk.

The importance of this program, local control of which was transferred last year to Arts Services of Western New York, is tough to overestimate. And this week's announcement of the grants and Thursday's celebration were a far cry from years past, when the program was mismanaged to the point of total chaos by the defunct Arts Council in Buffalo and Erie County. Its Niagara County administrator, the overtaxed Carnegie Arts Center in Tonawanda, struggled to oversee the program and maintain its other community programs at the same time.

What a difference a year makes. In 2012, after too many seasons of budgetary turmoil in Albany and local mismanagement, NYSCA put the newly formed Arts Services Initiative in charge of the grant process. The fortunes of the 35-year-old decentralization program, as it is officially called, haven't looked this good in at least a decade. And that's largely due to the hard work of ASI's Tod A. Kniazuk and grant program coordinator Jennifer Swan, who made sure this year's grant process ran smoothly. For those who have watched this painful and protracted process unfold in years past, ASI's work is beyond refreshing and bodes well for the smaller members of Western New York's cultural ecology.

The NYSCA program, launched in 1978, is one of the most important of its type in the United States. It emphasizes and understands the ubiquity of culture, from microscopic municipalities to bustling major cities. And in an atmosphere where funding is tight and ever-tightening, the grant program ensures at least some level of attention is paid to those small-scale events and groups who in past years have fallen by the wayside.

To the many taxpayers, it may be difficult to feel the effect of this investment of taxpayer money. But study after study has shown that public dollars invested in events like summer concert series, arts education programs and other cultural events provide a significant return on investment both economically and in the lives of the participants.

In fact, $100,000 for all of Western New York's small arts programs isn't nearly enough. If Albany saw fit to increase that number by even a few thousand dollars, we'd be more likely to see a concurrent rise in the vibrancy of the towns, villages and cities those funds support. It's not magic, nor are such grants mere handouts to struggling groups. They just make economic common sense.



email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com.