Leaders in Connecticut's arts community were stunned Wednesday over Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's plan to cut more than $11 million in payments to local arts programs as of July 1.
The proposed cuts have raised concern as more than 20 different programs have a zero placed next to their names in Malloy's budget. The groups have already set their fiscal plans for 2012, and could have their state funding disappear in the middle of the year.
The cuts include $2.1 million from the Connecticut Humanities Council, nearly $800,000 from the New Haven Festival of Arts and Ideas, $630,000 from the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford, $620,000 from Mystic Aquarium and $530,000 from the Maritime Center in Norwalk. The groups will be permitted to compete for $14 million from a state fund, but the arts leaders said that the details of how the competitive process would work were still unclear Wednesday.
Catherine Smith, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, told legislators on the appropriations committee Wednesday that Malloy was "moving away from an earmarked, line item by line item grant'' for the arts.
"The goal is not to zero-out these organizations, despite what it looks like on paper,'' Smith said during an afternoon budget hearing with legislators. "We do want to move toward that notion that people will apply for funding on an annual basis.''
At the same time, Malloy is calling for spending an additional $10 million on statewide marketing to help increase tourism under the state Department of Economic and Community Development.
At a public hearing Wednesday night, the leaders of some of the state's marquee arts organizations, including The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford and the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, all spoke against the plan.
"We were all very surprised,'' said Stuart Parnes, executive director of the Connecticut Humanities Council. "We were all shocked. … We don't know what the guidelines [for future funding] will be at this point.''
The leaders of the Shubert, Palace, and Stamford Center for the Arts said that the three theaters attracted more than 300,000 patrons last year and employed more than 600 part-time workers. They said that they provided an economic boost by filling 7,000 hotel rooms last year.
The proposed cuts would affect organizations throughout the state, including: Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport, which would lose $354,000; the Garde Arts Center in New London, $300,000; Ivoryton Playhouse, $150,000; and a combined $95,000 from the Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe houses in Hartford. Malloy also is seeking to slice $378,000 each from the Stamford Center for the Arts, the Palace Theatre in Waterbury, the Amistad vessel and the Discovery Museum in Bridgeport. The Greater Hartford Arts Council and New Haven Arts Council each would lose nearly $95,000 each, and the New Britain Arts Council would lose $75,000.
In response to a question during the afternoon hearing, Smith said she did not know if arts groups were told in advance that their grants would be sliced to zero.
Sen. Robert Duff, D-Norwalk, said he was "not completely comfortable with this in the way it was rolled out." He added, "The legislative branch, as a co-equal branch of government, has a role to play, too.''
Later, Smith said that the state would be increasing money for tourism to $25 million and would be developing a new "brand" for Connecticut.
"The governor worked on the 'I Love New York' campaign when he was in law school,'' Smith told Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, the longtime co-chairwoman of the appropriations committee. "We haven't got a brand yet that we can hang our hat on. We hired four firms to do the work with us. ... I forget all the names of these various firms.''
Harp responded that television advertising is "really, really expensive'' to broadcast.
"This is what the research will inform us about on where to spend the dollars,'' Smith responded. "We want to be aiming at a younger, maybe 30 to 50, age market. ... We're mostly a drive-to state for tourism.''
As such, some advertising would be targeted at states like Rhode Island and New Jersey because vacationers can drive from those states to Connecticut, she said.
"We will be happy to come back to this committee and any others once those decisions are made,'' Smith said, adding that she would have more answers in April.
The New Haven Festival of Arts and Ideas has been on the budget-cutting list at times in the past, but former state Rep. William R. Dyson — the New Haven Democrat who was co-chairman of the appropriations committee in those days — always fought to have the money restored. The festival generates an estimated $20 million in economic activity and attracts as many as 125,000 people to New Haven. With Dyson's retirement from the legislature, the two main defenders of funding in New Haven are the co-chairwomen of the appropriations committee: Harp and Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven.
This year's event will be the 17th annual festival, coming on the heels of a successful 2011 festival that included a free concert on the New Haven Green by the famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Smith's deputy, Kip Bergstrom, has held five forums throughout the state to inform the arts community about the proposed changes for competitive grants and a "transition'' period for funding. The meetings started Jan. 24 in New Haven, and the most recent was Wednesday in Hartford. But Parnes said that the cuts were never discussed by Bergstrom at the sessions.
"None of this,'' Parnes said, "was ever mentioned at those meetings.''