Why the cuts to the DCCAH don’t make sense

I just got off the phone with the DCCAH’s budget officer in the OBP, and have been corrected about some of my misunderstandings in reading the proposed 2010 budget.

District Arts funding appears in the DCCAH’s budget in two ways. Money approved for management by the Commission, and earmarks. The grants are competitive. You apply, go through panel review, and if you are selected, you receive money. Earmarks are written into the budget. They are non-competitive, there is no review, and no oversight.

Looking at the planned FY 2010 budget, it looks like the general fund is down over 50% from the 14 million FY 2009 level. In fact, the planned FY 2009 budget looked very similar to this year’s budget at this stage. Last year, five million in earmarks were tacked on outside of the agency’s budgeting process. This year the same thing is happening. They are apparently still closed-door haggling about the exact earmarks, but in the end, the FY 2010 budget will look quite  a lot like the FY 2009. Looking at the FY 2010 budget right now, it looks like we’re experiencing massive cuts. But that is only because the earmarks haven’t yet appeared. They are not public – in consideration – and only appear on the actual, approved budget. Excuse my alarm in misreading the budget. Things haven’t really changed at all. It’s just that almost half of local arts funding dollars go through politicians, not the DCCAH budgeting/granting process.

It should be noted that the earmark system – while wickedly abusive of political influence and back room pandering – is currently necessary. The largest grants that the DCCAH offers is 250k. If you are a District arts org needing major funds the only way to get them from the District is through an earmark.


As some of my readers already know, local arts funding has been particularly targeted in DC’s recently submitted FY 2010 budget. The DC Advocates for the Arts, and I as chair, are engaged in conversations considering what might be an appropriate response to the slashing of local arts funding.

The cuts to the DCCAH dont make economic sense. The only way to understand the cuts is to understand how our priorities shift – as a whole – based on economic trends. For a number of years Gallup has been tracking the interaction of economic issues with concern over environmental trends. The poll below shows that we stop prioritizing the environment when the economy is in trouble. This may not be in our best economic interest. For instance: green economy/green energy jobs would be local jobs, not exportable, based on creation of energy in the United States. Even if we are cutting, the government still spends a lot money. How should we prioritize that spending? Our public officials need to look beyond poll numbers to make decisions in the best interest of the local economy. Gallup env/economy poll

Funding local arts is an efficient means for government to stimulate small business, and support livable communities. The Districts FY 2009 budget was a 9 Billion dollar spending plan. The DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities granting budget – which is the money distributed to local artists, was 13 million in FY09. It is easy to look at rising deficit numbers and assert that we have to cut everywhere. But cutting money that makes you money — that isnt where you start if youre smart. Local arts grants stimulate local tax revenue from emergent and small arts businesses. On top of that – the cuts are far too small to make any difference to the big numbers.

From FY 2009 to FY 2010, the DC Department of Human Resources has been cut from 17 million to 15.3 million, a cut of 10%. The Office of Finance and Resource Management has been cut from 246 million to 240 million, a cut of 2%. The Office of Contracting and Procurement has been cut from 15 million to 12.8 million, a cut of 15%. From FY 2009, the budget of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities has been cut by 37% overall, and the general fund (the grants) have been cut 51%, for FY 2010.

Cutting the arts is the wrong decision economically. If cuts must be made, the arts should not be cut more than other lines in the budget. Local government arts spending provides services to district residents (through arts and continuing education) and contributes back through tax revenue. While it might seem antithetical, now is the time to increase, not decrease, individual grants to artists and small arts organizations.

Author: Robert Bettmann

Founder of Day Eight, and the DC Arts Writing Fellowship.