The arts have been a topic of conversation in Concord lately, as legislators debate not whether funding will be cut but by how much. Those who work with the arts on a regular basis are concerned that if the cuts are too deep, arts in the state may never fully recover.
Cathy Sununu, director of the Portsmouth Museum of Fine Arts, knows a thing or two about the workings of the Statehouse. Her father, John H. Sununu, was governor for three terms beginning in 1983. As governor, Sununu established the Department of Cultural Resources, according to Cathy Sununu. This department has been a cost-saving target of the House during this budget cycle.
Sununu said potential budget cuts have been on everybody’s mind recently. She said she understands that the state’s budget deficit is so huge that everything is subject to cuts. In Governor John Lynch’s proposed budget, the Council on the Arts, which is part of the Cultural Resources Department, would have taken a nearly seven-percent cut from last year’s budget.
“We should allow the Cultural Resources Department to take its cut like everybody else,” Sununu said.
She said in the large scheme of things the amount of money being discussed is trivial and could easily be found somewhere else. Sununu acknowledged, however, it was a difficult time to be a legislator, as tough choices needed to be made.
“I wouldn’t want to be up there making cuts,” Sununu said.
A. Robert Dionne, artistic director of the Majestic Theatre in Manchester, agreed that it was a difficult sell for art patrons. With so many social services being cut, people aren’t as sympathetic about the arts. But Dionne said the extra revenues brought in by the arts often go toward funding social services.
Sununu said her reason for defending the Department of Cultural Resources is an economic one. She said New Hampshire’s largest industry is tourism. Places like the North Country have skiing to fall back on, but in Portsmouth arts and culture are what bring people into the city. Sununu said even though Portsmouth is a seacoast community, it has no beaches and very few people use the city for boating. And Portsmouth doesn’t have any large venues like the Verizon Wireless Arena. She said people come to be entertained and, when they are, they contribute to the state in the form of the meals and rooms tax. Sununu said arts supporters need to think about how to do a better job of pairing arts with business and economy because for some reason they seem to be viewed separately.
Sununu said the decision of the House to all but eliminate the State Council on the Arts means the agency would have a questionable future. She said once something is gone, it is nearly impossible for it to return. To do that the state would need a strong and committed governor willing to stand up for the arts. Sununu said the budget will be difficult for years so it is unlikely any governor would stand up for the arts.
David Christopher, an artist himself and director of the Soo Rye Art Gallery, feels such cuts would stunt arts growth in the state, which he thinks has been slowly growing momentum over the years.
“I can only hope and pray that people wake up to the fact that thousands of dollars are generated by the arts; money that helps us fuel all matters of economic and structural reconstruction throughout New Hampshire,” Christopher wrote via e-mail. “The reality of the numbers comes down to each citizen of New Hampshire paying $0.32 per year to keep the arts alive.”
Dionne worried that if an organization like the Council on the Arts went away even more work would fall on the shoulders of local arts organizations. He said many are so focused on what they are doing, it is difficult to get to Concord to protest the cuts. With razor-thin profit margins, arts organizations are working hard to manage day-to-day operations and benefit from grants they receive from the state. Dionne feared if cuts were too deep, no one would be left minding the store.
While the state would save close to $400,000 by eliminating the Council on the Arts, it would lose that same amount in a 1:1 match by the federal government.
“This act would cripple New Hampshire’s ability to fuel public arts projects, killing off grant money and art education funding, further stunting upcoming generations,” Christopher wrote.
Dionne also worried the state would take advantage of the hard workers associated with the arts. Dionne said he was comfortable that whatever happened, those involved with the arts would survive. But he worried that because they are already working so hard, they may get burned out and then no one would be left to fight.
Art students also know what is going on but like many college kids are so focused on what they need to get done they don’t have much time to help. Aaron Mitchell, an illustration student at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, said students regularly get e-mails from faculty alerting them about events in Concord and asking them to go and represent the school. But he said most students don’t fully know what is going on and are focused on producing their best art work.