N.j. Arts Funded The Political Way Lawmakers Help Their Favorites.

Posted: July 14, 1998

TRENTON — At an eagerly awaited ceremony here on July 28, about 200 New Jersey theater companies, dance troupes and museums will learn whether they get a grant from the state Council on the Arts - say, $50,000 for stage lights, or maybe $75,000 to hire administrative staff.

But 16 groups already have state funds without the council's rigorous application and peer review process - courtesy of their state legislators.

The extra money, almost none of which was distributed in South Jersey, has sparked some resentment in creative fields in which cash is hard to come by. It has some members of the arts community muttering darkly that, of all people, politicians should not be evaluating which art programs are worthwhile causes. Moreover, critics say, there is less accountability for how the special appropriations are spent.

Those views have arts advocates in the delicate position of criticizing the very lawmakers who boosted arts funding this year. The state budget includes an increase of $1.5 million for the regular arts council grants, for a total of $14.7 million. The special grants from legislators total $2.3 million on top of that.

The view of ArtPride New Jersey, a leading arts advocacy group, is that the extra funds are great, but that they should be channeled through the council's competitive process. Gov. Whitman sounded a similar note of concern in a message tacked onto the final budget bill, saying that such bypassing of the arts council ``is not in the long-term interest of the arts in New Jersey.''

``We're happy that the legislature recognizes that there's a need for money in the arts community,'' said Ann Marie Miller, executive director of ArtPride. ``But if you're going through the review process, there's some accounting for the organization's quality.''

When an arts group goes through the traditional process, it must submit detailed forms to the arts council, documenting the quality of both the program and its administration. The council convenes more than 20 different peer review panels to judge the applications, and in many cases, there are site visits.

Receiving a legislative grant, on the other hand, can be much easier.

``I met our legislator at some benefit somewhere,'' said Robert Rechnitz, artistic director of the Two River Theatre Company in Red Bank, ``and we started talking about the theater, and that was that.''

Rechnitz learned later that the legislator, Sen. Joseph M. Kyrillos Jr. (R., Monmouth), had arranged for a $25,000 grant. Kyrillos, a budget committee member who also secured funds for the Monmouth Museum in Lincroft, said he recognizes that the arts council is best suited to evaluate projects. Still, he said, there are always exceptions, such as when a group has capital building needs. The arts council can fund only operating expenses.

``If there are occasions, isolated examples, where members [of the legislature] feel there's good reason to give them a little extra boost, I think that's justified,'' Kyrillos said. ``I think everybody ought to kind of calm down.''

Among the regular arts council grants, 25 percent of the money is earmarked for the state's southernmost eight counties, thanks to efforts last year by Assembly Speaker Jack Collins (R., Salem) and Assemblyman Joseph J. Roberts Jr. (D., Camden).

But among the supplemental grants, there is almost no mention of South Jersey. The only one is $25,000 for the two-year-old South Jersey Performing Arts Center, part of Camden's waterfront complex.

Barbara Fenhagen, executive director of the well-regarded center, knows the perspective of both grant recipients and those who distribute the funds. Years ago, she worked at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which hands out money for public television programming.

Fenhagen said she understood the criticism of bypassing the arts council process, but said there is room for more than one source of funds.

``I think the thing we always need to keep in mind is that democracy is messy. It's loud and boisterous,'' Fenhagen said. ``At the very least what it means is that there are a lot of our legislators who are really committed and passionate about the arts and their local arts groups, and that's fabulous.''

The amounts of money in question are small, especially when compared with the $18.2 billion state budget. Yet for an arts group, $20,000 here or $50,000 there can have a dramatic impact.

None of the critics was willing to single out one of the 16 recipients as being undeserving of the extra cash. But while the arts council forces groups to plan for long-term needs, the one-shot legislative grants can lull groups into a false sense of security, warned Pat Jones, Roberts' chief of staff and a Camden County freeholder.

The key issue, say many arts administrators, is fairness. That's the view of Alan Willoughby, executive director of the Perkins Center for the Arts in Moorestown.

``Things should go through the proper structure and should be competitive,'' said Willoughby, who on July 28 hopes to get $105,000 in council funds toward the center's $600,000 operating budget. ``I think that's only fair.''

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