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Arts community feels impact of funding cuts

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When county officials first proposed budget cuts for arts funding, Leigh Mickelson, executive director of Clay Art Center in Port Chester, was among those lobbying to keep existing funding intact.

“It was hard. I was there for the budget hearings,” said Mickelson, who made an appeal to legislators to save the limited pool of money that fulfills many of the financial needs of arts organizations throughout Westchester. “We even had our kids write letters to legislators to show how important the arts are.”

In the end, the effort failed to prevent funding cuts, and $285,000 was eliminated from the arts funding portion of the 2013 budget. The Clay Art Center was directly impacted by the cuts. “We were supposed to get a $5,000 challenge grant from ArtsWestchester and it has been reduced to $2,285,” said Mickelson.

ArtsWestchester, a nonprofit organization that promotes the visual and performing arts in Westchester, is grateful the cuts weren’t deeper. According to Janet Langsam, CEO of the organization, “$500,000 was actually put back into the arts budget.” But, she added, “unfortunately, it’s not enough.”

Langsam said since the economic downturn, donations have decreased and government funding has steadily declined. ArtsWestchester received $1.535 million in 2012, and next year they’ll get $1.250 million. The drop off in funds makes it harder for the arts to survive. “The Paramount just closed,” Langsam said, referring to the once-celebrated theater in Peekskill that was forced to suspend operations Oct. 4. She added, “Everybody is hanging on with some difficulty.”

One of ArtsWestchester’s responsibilities is determining who gets how much of the county funding. Since 1975, the organization has been the county’s designated arts council and is one of several united arts funds in the nation. ArtsWestchester provides grants and support to organizations like the Clay Art Center, which has used challenge grants to provide programming for homeless kids, mentally disabled adults, as well as cancer and Alzheimer patients.

Another arts organization that has benefited from the funds ArtsWestchester distributes on behalf of the county is the New Rochelle Council on the Arts. Judith Weber, council president and working artist, said the cuts were “disturbing” because it means the arts are somehow less valuable. “Some people think of the arts as frivolous, but we create jobs,” Weber said. “We encourage people to spend money and generate revenue. I mean, we’re not just the feel-good part of the community; we’re an essential part of the community.”

Langsam believes that statement has merit. ArtsWestchester participated in a study by nonprofit organization Americans for the Arts called “Arts & Economic Prosperity IV.” According to the study, the arts sector in Westchester has generated $156.44 million as of 2010. That figure totaled $96.8 million from nonprofit arts and culture organizations, plus $59.6 million in event-related audience spending.

The arts community is also responsible for generating 4,800 jobs in the county. That’s significant, but not the only reason the arts are important. Mickelson, whose Clay Art Center has been around since 1957, said, “Everybody should have opportunity to express themselves through the arts.” You can’t put a monetary value on that, she added. “Children especially need to have that joy and fulfillment they can get through the arts.”

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