Times change, so do county executives, and institutions come and go, but the flow of county subsidies to the culturals remains largely undisturbed.
That’s the upshot of a recent analysis of Erie County cultural funding since 1996, which reveals a top-heavy approach to doling out public money across four county executives from both parties.
Since 1996, according to data provided by the administration of Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, the county has doled out about $100 million to arts and cultural organizations. Of that, the Buffalo Zoo took in $27.1 million, or about 27 percent of all the cultural funding Erie County distributed in the past 19 years.
The Buffalo Science Museum comes in a distant second, with 17 percent of the total funding, followed by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra with 14 percent, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery with 10 percent, and the Buffalo History Museum with 7.5 percent. Out of 111 cultural and recreational organizations receiving money from the county since 1996, the top five groups took in 75 percent of the total funding.
While money for cultural organizations has often led to acrimony when elected officials have tried to cut it, the way the pie is split does not engender much debate. Many in the arts community agree with the county’s philosophy of playing to the region’s strengths.
In relation to organizations’ total budgets, a survey of groups large and small showed that the county’s contributions account for between 5 and 10 percent of the groups’ total budgets. Both the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which pulled in $548,000 from the county this year, and Road Less Traveled Productions, which pulled in $15,836, estimate the county contributions make up about 8 percent of their total budgets.
“Do I think that a major organization like the Albright-Knox shouldn’t get 7.8 percent of their funding from Erie County? No, I don’t. I think it’s super-important,” said Hallwalls executive director Edmund Cardoni, whose organization received 10 percent of its budget, or $54,000, from the county this year. “I think what it contributes to the whole arts scene, to the image of Buffalo, to cultural tourism, to employing people, I think it’s really important. Especially when you hear about some companies that get these huge tax incentives.”
Zoo is special case
In addition to taking the largest share of county cultural funding, the Buffalo Zoo also relies more heavily on Erie County cultural money than most other organizations, most of which raise between 95 and 100 percent of their operating budgets from private or other public sources.
The county’s 2014 contribution of $1.47 million accounts for 19 percent of the zoo’s total operating budget. That’s down from about 35 percent in the mid-1990s, according to the zoo’s marketing and development director Adair M. Saviola.
“We do realize that we get the lion’s share, but part of it has to do with the fact that we’re a live collection and we do hold these animals in trust for the entire community,” Saviola said. “I think we’re very lucky to have the zoo here.”
As for the four other top cultural organizations, which together have taken almost half the total funding since 1996, what Erie County kicks in is proportional to many smaller and midsized groups.
What arts organizations want the county to keep in mind, however, is the importance of its contributions in supporting groups’ operation costs – a notoriously difficult kind of money to raise from private foundations, which are more likely to fund specific programs or positions than electricity bills and rent.
The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, for instance, gets about 8.5 percent of its budget from the county, which helps it to pay for less-than-glamorous costs like rent and utility bills.
“It sounds like a small number but it makes a big, big difference to our organization, and we are of course immensely grateful for it,” said BPO communications coordinator Kate Jenkins.
Buried in the data, provided to The Buffalo News earlier this year by the Poloncarz’s office, are a few surprising facts. In a funding atmosphere remarkable mostly for how little it has changed over the years, a few groups stand out.
Of the 42 organizations that have received county money since 1996, fewer than half saw their share of the county’s cultural largesse increase. When adjusted for inflation, funding for all but 12 of those organizations in Erie County has declined.
Overall, when the numbers are adjusted for inflation, cultural organizations will receive 20 percent less in 2014 than they did in 1996, and 35 percent less than they did in 2003, when cultural funding was at its highest level in recent history under former Erie County Executive Joel Giambra. Funding for the Erie County library system has taken a similar hit over the same time period.
The rest, whether large or small, saw their county funding either stagnate or lag behind the inflation rate.
In terms of convincing the county to dole out more money over the past 19 years, the biggest winner was the Irish Classical Theatre Company, which saw its grant increase from $10,000 in 1996 to $77,000 this year. Also faring comparatively well were the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, whose grant went from $4,000 in 1996 to $27,000 this year, and the Burchfield Penney Art Center, whose grant ballooned from $20,000 in 1996 to $95,000 this year.
What has changed since 1996 is the makeup of Erie County’s cultural community, which has grown substantially during the past 15 years despite decreased funding from Erie County.
In response to that growth, the county hasn’t allocated much more money for cultural groups but has merely spread the available money thinner. In 1996, Erie County funded 42 organizations. This year, it stretched its money to fund 65 groups with a total of $5.65 million, the largest number of organizations receiving county grants since 1996.
Aside from two blips in 2005 and 2011 and a recent expansion of the number of organizations receiving funding under the current administration, Erie County’s approach to cultural funding has remained consistent. It reached its zenith in 2003 under Giambra, two years before the “red/green budget crisis,” and dipped to its lowest level, about $3 million, during that crisis in 2005. (The Fund for the Arts, a consortium of private foundations that formed during the crisis, stepped in to make up much of the difference.)
Under former County Executive Chris Collins, the level of funding inched back up to its late-1990s levels. But in the run-up to Collins’ 2011 budget, he decided to fund only 10 of the county’s cultural organizations, leaving its many small and mid-sized groups to fend for themselves. After the Erie County Legislature stepped in, 21 groups ended up receiving county funding in 2011.
Under Poloncarz, Erie County has kept the level of funding consistent with his predecessor, although he announced plans last year to increase it by about 2 percent annually.
For Tod A. Kniazuk, the executive director of the cultural advocacy group Arts Service Initiative, the Erie County funding picture for cultural organizations is largely healthy. Even so, he said that the county may need to re-evaluate the amount it gives to legacy organizations that are struggling to fulfill their missions and make the process more nimble to allow for larger grants to younger organizations and groups experiencing rapid growth.
“There’s only two ways that more money’s going to end up available for those organizations that are new, or that are growing or that are producing more. Number one is to find more money in the budget, and obviously that’s the way we’d love. But number two is to make some adjustments,” Kniazuk said. “The reality is that all of these organizations that are doing good work, many of them are doing good work being very understaffed. Many of them, with extra dollars could more fully realize their artistic mission.”
Kniazuk, who watched the county’s arts funding process as an Erie County Legislature staffer from 1997 to 2002 and later as a member of the cultural community, said that local groups are doing relatively well.
“There’s more that could be done, certainly, but when you look at the overall, the fact that we remain, the fact that we’re relatively strong, I think is a pretty good win,” Kniazuk said. “The challenge looking long-term is, as our community rebuilds itself, and as we bring more money into the community, then we want to see it grow. Then we want to reap some of the rewards that we have definitely helped sow.”