Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Erie County Budget Cuts--In the Heart of Darkness

It has been few interesting months for Erie County cultural groups.

The Evil Erie County Empire swept in and Darth Collins imposed his imperial will on the people of the Creative Class. This overlord proclaimed he was cutting funding and the days of free handouts were over for these groups while those he deemed worthy were saved from his lightsaber cuts to the Erie County budget.

Okay, you get the point.

Anyone involved in the Arts receiving Erie County funding is up in arms to protest this extreme measure and proclaiming that Collins is taking away quality of life and depriving an economic engine of needed resources. The loudest voices are those who have had a longstanding budget dependencies on Erie County funding and now face the daunting task of filling these huge, and potentially crippling, gaps in their own budgets.

Although American Rep Theater of WNY has never received Erie County funding, ART retained allegiance to those who faced these extreme measures as well as shared in disgust with Collins' arrogance in determining which cultural groups were worthwhile or relevant.

As the cries of protest grew louder and calls for unity echoed throughout, it became apparent that those voices who put themselves in a position to be spokespeople for all were actually acting out of self-preservation with an sense of entitlement based on reputation and establishment.

Indeed, in a recent interview on WECK with an artistic director of a reputed theater company, this individual indicated that those established theater of 20 years were committed to the community whereas some unestablished theaters who "parachute in" or are "hit and run" are not.

I was shocked to hear this comment and, in attempt to gain some clarity, wrote this individual only to get a personal attack detailing my lack of being a team player and "sniping from the sidelines". The overall feel of the response was that I lack the experience and insight to see the bigger picture and that my energies should be spent fighting Collins.

Okay, fair enough to sling this, but the issue of explaining what was meant by "hit and run" theaters was never addressed leaving me the impression that the big picture is if your cultural group lacks reputation or is unestablished, shut up, sit down, and support efforts to save the budgets of those who are established.

So what is this big picture?

There's the big picture of government. This country is in one of the worst economic downturns since the 1930's, New York State is broke and local government budgets are stretched to provide the common amenities to the public. In light of this, the Collins cuts are necessary evils in the name of governing.

The idea that a cultural group should be entitled to have their funding restored means Collins would have to close, for example, a Buffalo General Hospital trauma unit in order to do this. Government 101 says restored funding for cultural programs would mean another program would have money cut or eliminated. What serves the County better? BOCES buses for special needs students or an art gallery?

Everyone has to tighten their belts in this current economic condition. The cultural groups are a small fraction of those who are suffering. Libraries are being closed, county workers are being laid-off and parks are being closed because of Erie County budget cuts. Overall, everyone is forced to adapt to these present conditions, and, most importantly, nobody should have a sense of entitlement in these times.

So when a business colleague calls me and tells me "Your people are laying on County Hall steps and there's a Grim Reaper hovering over them. What's up with that?" I shrug it off. "Nothing. Creative folks being creative."

I do not begrudge anyone who makes the effort to express dissent. There is tremendous value in the Arts community having a united front. What makes protest worthwhile is the result and how it achieves that goal. For example, restaurants have seen a 2% growth in this economy, why not petition Erie County restaurants to sponsor one boutique theater and one smaller art gallery per year? Corporate sponsorship of the arts in below national average in Erie County, so why not organize boycotts of businesses that fail to support the arts?

Not sure if holding up small, harmless signs "Stop Cutting Cultural Funding", or wearing Halloween costumes will get Chris Collins to overturn his budget cuts. If anything, it gives those who are outside the Arts another reason not to take us seriously. If the Cultural groups need to come up with a message, it should be an acknowledgement that not one group is entitled to funding because they have reputation or are established.

To say one Cultural group or another helps improve the way of life in Erie County and therefore is entitled to keep its Erie County funding is arrogant and reflects the same judgemental blindness diplayed by Collins.

Trauma units improve the way of life in Erie County and that, for me, is the "bigger picture".

Matthew LaChiusa is the 2009 winner of the Artvoice Awards Emanuel Fried award for Best Original Play, and is the Eexecutive/Artistic Director for American Repertory Theater of WNY.