Speaking Out for the Arts in New Jersey

Laura Aden Packer, Program Director, Arts

sisyphus-by-titian

In Greek mythology Sisyphus was a king who was punished for eternity: condemned to roll an enormous boulder uphill, only to watch it roll back down again.

This story has been played out here in New Jersey over the last 20 years by the nonprofit arts industry as it has been condemned, year after year, to fight an uphill battle for restoration and/or growth of public funding. As a founding board member of ArtPride/NJ, the arts advocacy organization started back in 1987, I have borne witness year after year to this never-ending struggle, and I find myself constantly wondering what else can be done to ensure that the incalculable value of cultural programming is fully understood.

There was some hope a few years back. In 2003, in the face of the possibility of complete elimination of public funding for the arts, the New Jersey Legislature wisely created a dedicated and recurring source of funding for arts, history and tourism from a new hotel/motel occupancy fee. A minimum of $16 million was guaranteed for the New Jersey State Council on the Arts from that fee, which last year generated over $80 million – most of which goes to the state’s general coffers and municipalities.

nj-arts-council-logoAs the revenue from the tax grew, the intention of the Legislature was to increase funding of the Arts Council as well. According to the terms of the legislation, the Arts Council should have been funded at $22.68 million this year, but the appropriation was only $19.25 million. And now, facing unprecedented fiscal challenges, the Governor has proposed that arts funding be cut to $14.45 million in 2010.

However, in order to protect New Jersey’s nonprofit arts organizations from the vagaries of economy turmoil, the Legislature added a “poison pill” provision to the law that created the hotel/motel occupancy tax. The provision states that if funding for the Arts Council falls below $16 million, the hotel/motel occupancy fee is totally rescinded, and the tens of millions of dollars from that fee that go directly to the state and municipalities can also no longer be collected.

Where is the sense in cutting the arts below this established threshold, when so much is at stake for the arts in New Jersey as well as for the revenue that goes to your local municipalities? The difference is a mere $1.55 million in a multi-billion dollar budget.

Nonprofit organizations throughout the state are already reeling from the global economic crisis, losing millions in contributed support and earned revenue. Arts leaders and their boards have been quick to curtail expenditures and to continue to function in economically responsible ways. But the impact of further cuts from the public sector will be destabilizing and possibly devastating to these artistic treasures that make up the cultural fabric of our state and our communities.

The arts in New Jersey are an indispensable facet of what makes our State an incredible place to live, work and play through the cultural enrichment provided by astonishing performances and exhibits, outreach to the poorest schools and thousands of the neediest children in our state, and over $1.5 billion in economic impact.

artpride-2What will it take to persuade our political leaders now, and in the future, that the arts are not a frill but that, in fact, the arts are a part of the solution to our economic woes?

Visit the ArtPride website to find out more about how you can help New Jersey’s arts community communicate the variety of ways in which the arts are making a difference in the lives of New Jerseyans from Cape May to High Point.

Let’s leave Sisyphus where he belongs – in Greek Mythology. This is a case where life has imitated art for too long, and at too high a cost.

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