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Federal funding has been directed to arts nonprofits struggling with ebbing economy



In February, President Barack Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, in an effort to re-ignite the American economy. Included in the $787 billion stimulus package of federal tax cuts, measures and appropriations was a $50 million allotment for support of the arts.


"The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is a federal program which allocated funds for the National Endowment for the Arts to distribute to nonprofit arts organizations," said Suzanne Tate, executive director of the Oklahoma Arts Council. "The whole purpose is to save jobs that were lost because of the economic downturn or in danger of being lost."

The National Endowment for the Arts then distributed funds to every state arts agency in the nation, requiring that the money be directed to local nonprofits struggling to retain positions. As Oklahoma's state arts agency, the OAC was given $306,800 to allocate as one-time grants.

"Each state was allowed to use part of that money for administration of those grants," said Ann Dee Lee, public information director at the OAC. "But we decided that it was so important and the money was so limited. And we wanted to make the biggest impact we could, so our state agency did not take a penny."

Out of the 44 organizations that applied to the OAC asking for a total amount of $1.1 million, 16 were funded with grants of $15,000 or $28,360. To assure that the money went to organizations of all sizes, at least one nonprofit was funded in each of Oklahoma's five congressional districts. 

Funded arts jobs in the Oklahoma City area include the executive director at the Black Liberated Arts Center, the executive director at Oklahoma Children's Theatre, the managing director and artistic director at Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park, the deputy director at Red Earth and the executive director at Untitled [ArtSpace]. Also supported was the Oklahoma City Ballet.

"They've recently re-organized and have been working under a skeleton crew," Tate said. "One of the jobs they had lost was their ballet master, who they had to let go due to a lack of funds. This grant allows them to hire that person back."

Jacob Sparso, a longtime dancer who has been with the organization for 15 years, was named the new ballet master, with responsibilities that range from teaching warm-up classes to running rehearsals to staging ballets.

"With the stimulus money, it's allowed us to transfer him from performing to just this primary function," said Robert Mills, artistic director at the Oklahoma City Ballet.

Like the other funded organizations, the Oklahoma City Ballet recognizes that the stimulus money is a temporary, but essential, support.

"It's given us a year to look at the budget and have a really good understanding of what we need, and it will allow us time to find the resources to pay for his position in the future," Mills said.

To receive the federal funding, the Oklahoma City Ballet and other arts organization completed an application that explained the job that would be maintained, and spelled out the nonprofit's need and its plan to preserve the job after the end of the grant. The position could be any in the organization, as long as it wasn't a fund-raiser or a contract employee.

"These arts organizations are really in jeopardy," Lee said. "If a job gets eliminated from an organization with just three people, that could kill an organization."

As nonprofits exist with the support of other economic areas, Tate said the recession has been especially difficult, as for-profit companies and organizations alter and reduce budgets.

"What organizations face is a loss of donations from the private sector, as many foundations that support nonprofits have had their investments take losses," she said. "They have less money to give out, so this is a bridge to get the nonprofits to where the economy will pick back up and give them time to put together a plan of action."

In addition to the OAC, Oklahoma organizations can directly apply to the NEA and the Mid-America Arts Alliance, although nonprofits may only receive support from one of those agencies. Since these nonprofits exist to provide services to the community, the stimulus money was intended to provide support so the groups can concentrate on producing, rather than cutting their programming.

"We recognize that the arts are an industry," Tate said. "The arts are a vital economic part of a sector that employs thousands of people across the state. They make our state a better place to live and they're very much a part of the economic development of our state in generating tax revenues."  

"?Allison Meier

Read the full list of the funded Oklahoma organizations.


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