Art Depreciation 

The Greater Memphis Arts Council faces tough questions about canceled programs, budget cuts, and fund-raising.

Two weeks ago, the Flyer reported that the Greater Memphis Arts Council dropped the ball on its share of two federal grants worth $90,000. We were wrong -- at least about the $90,000. That figure only applies to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. A second Department of Commerce grant is scheduled to pay $705,000. The NEA has confirmed that the grant, awarded to the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, a national education program headquartered in the Washington, D.C., area, listed GMAC as a consortium member, along with Wolf Trap National and Wolf Trap New York.

Not all of that money would have come to Memphis, but, by way of the now-mothballed Center for Arts Education, the grants would have brought plenty to the table in the way of technology, training, prestige, and employment for artists. And, of course, money.

GMAC president Susan Schadt, in an interview three weeks after the Flyer first contacted her for information about mass resignations at the CAE, pleaded ignorance of the Wolf Trap grant.

"I haven't heard or seen anything in writing that we are the recipient of a grant, or what our obligations are for that," said Schadt. "I have no written knowledge of anything ... . We did receive a letter from Wolf Trap asking us not to use the logo, but we haven't been doing Wolf Trap since last fall." In a subsequent e-mail, Marci Woodmansee, media coordinator and spokesperson for GMAC, said, to "be more accurate," the partnership with Wolf Trap Center for Early Childhood Education ended in August 2002.

Schadt wasn't aware of a GMAC partnership with Wolf Trap? Her signature at the bottom of a consortium information form obtained by the Flyer (part of the original NEA application) would suggest otherwise. It was signed on August 8, 2002, approximately the same time Woodmansee says the partnership with Wolf Trap ended.

According to a spokesperson for the NEA, it's not uncommon for these kinds of partnerships to end or for the terms of a grant to change during the time between a grant's announcement and its implementation. So, breaking up a partnership, while unfortunate, is not unprecedented. Still, Schadt's claim of total ignorance of the deal is at least discourteous to her former partners, if not disingenuous. Viewed only as a diplomatic fiasco, it casts a shadow on Schadt's leadership and public-relations skills at a time when the GMAC can little afford another misstep.

And therein lies much of the problem. The GMAC has been exceedingly clumsy in its handling of the media -- dodging phone calls, reluctantly granting interviews, and refusing to completely answer questions. Cutting the Center for Arts Education programs has puzzled and angered hundreds of people. CAE program director Amelia Barton, her staff, and the CAE programs were very popular and had garnered Memphis a national reputation. CAE supporters, teachers, grant partners, and participating artists were taken by surprise and are fighting mad at what they see as the arbitrary and somewhat mysterious way in which the program was canceled.

In an interviewearlier this year, Schadt, along with board president Tommy Farnsworth III and Barton, expressed optimism that Wolf Trap was merely in hibernation and would return when funding permitted.

Mimi Flaherty, the senior director of education for Wolf Trap, says she was told the same thing via Barton, until Barton's resignation in early May. Flaherty says the GMAC led Wolf Trap to believe Memphis would fully reinstate its program and fulfill its end of the bargain. Contacted shortly after her resignation, an obviously emotional Barton said she was not at liberty to comment.

Reviewing

the Situation

In the fall of 2002, the Flyer requested an interview with Barton to discuss the significant cuts that had been made to CAE programs and staff and to determine if GMAC's 20-year commitment to the center was being reevaluated. We were not allowed to speak with Barton directly, but, after a month of wrangling, a group interview was arranged with Barton, Schadt, Woodmansee, and Farnsworth. While Barton admitted the lean times were "frustrating," she confirmed that the CAE, modeled after Lincoln Center's aesthetic education wing, would continue to provide students with programs applying art to traditional curriculums such as math, reading, and science, as budgeting allowed. Schadt and Farnsworth agreed, citing fiscal responsibility as their primary concern and as the reason programs and personnel had to be cut.

Farnsworth compared the CAE's situation to the classic horror film The Blob, about a radioactive creature growing out of control. His point was that the kinds of grantable programs the CAE pursues tend to come with costly strings attached. For example, a given grant might require the CAE to extend its services to a community it has not previously served (seniors or the mentally ill, for example), ultimately costing more than the granted amount, overextending the Arts Council's human and financial resources.

The Wolf Trap program, aimed at early-childhood education, was among the services that fell victim to these hard times after Memphis HeadStart failed to pay its share of the costs for the program. The Family Focus program, which allowed poor families to attend arts events as a group for a single reduced price, also got the ax.

At that time, Schadt said there had been no internal friction between GMAC and the CAE beyond natural frustrations created by budgetary issues. Barton, confessing some disappointments, agreed that appropriate working relationships were in place.

Friction or no, half a year later the entire staff of the CAE has resigned under circumstances that remain a bit mysterious. Shortly after Barton's resignation a month ago, Kay Ross and Anne Davey, the remaining employees of CAE, also resigned. A week after the walkout, GMAC, calling the event a personnel issue and citing policy, e-mailed the Flyer a "no comment" on the resignations. The resignations have since been attributed to budgetary concerns.

The CAE's annual summer institute has been canceled and related contracts with teaching artists have been voided. Meanwhile, Barton, who still won't comment, has contacted Flaherty and Crittenden Arts Council president Janine Earney to discuss the possibility of transferring the grant money and benefits forfeited by GMAC to its smaller counterpart in West Memphis.

"Erroneous Information"

"It's erroneous information that we are closing the Center for Arts Education," says Schadt. But she acknowledges that the CAE of tomorrow "could well not be [the CAE] as we've known it. We're in a very intense assessment mode as to where we want to head," she adds. "But we're still looking at partner schools, and obviously we're going to be doing the ticket subsidy [program]."

The ticket subsidy program creates an opportunity for schoolchildren to attend arts events at reduced costs. While it is a valuable educational enhancement, the program wouldn't qualify as "arts education" under the strict definitions espoused by Wolf Trap or Lincoln Center. However, for an organization existing in the diversity-conscious world of Memphis politics (GMAC has been accused by the city council of being elitist), the ticket subsidy program looks great on paper.

"The bulk of the 100,000 students that are affected by the CAE is through the ticket- subsidy program," says Schadt. "So when you talk about the 100,000 students affected by arts education, you have to keep in mind -- the very top of mind -- that that for the most part is ticket subsidy recipients. And that is very much still in place."

"Rich Boyd at the Tennessee Arts Commission and I have been in constant contact," Schadt says. "That [ticket subsidy] money is still coming down to the Arts Council. That money is designated to the Arts Council, not the Center for Arts Education. And the Arts Council can spend those funds on arts education as we see fit.

"What's important is that we've had a major budget cut here at the Arts Council," Schadt says, referencing the proposed cuts by county officials to GMAC's budget. "When you have $363,000 removed from your budget and you have less than six weeks to make that [money] up, there have to be hard, courageous decisions made. Not only are we cutting arts programming, we are cutting GMAC expenses by some 20 to 25 percent. We are looking to sublet space [in our offices]. We are looking to decrease our printed materials. We are looking at further cutbacks administratively . This is affecting everybody at the Arts Council. And we are looking to fund our [not-for-profit] arts groups that each have their own very significant, historical outreach and arts education for children."

Six months ago, Schadt said that there was no specific plan on the table to gut CAE services and replace them with programs sponsored by Memphis arts groups. Things have, for budgetary reasons, clearly taken a turn in that direction.

"We are still assessing the situation but we are definitely talking with [the arts groups] about where they can pick up the slack," Schadt says, adding, "I certainly believe in getting them around the table. And if those arts groups who are in the business of programming can serve the children better than we can, given our financial constraints, then that's what we are going to do."

"Back to the Old Way"

On Saturday, May 25th, there was a meeting at a private residence of arts professionals, former GMAC employees, university professors, businesspeople who sit on the boards of various arts organizations, and a number of rather angry city school teachers. What began as an attempt by the group to figure out exactly what was going on at the GMAC ended as a planning session to ensure that the kinds of aesthetic education programs offered by the CAE would continue, with or without GMAC's support. Possible benefactors for a new organization were named, and a general theme arose: Why fight for the preservation of programs within the confines of an organization you no longer trust? Specifically, the GMAC.

At the meeting, an article from The Commercial Appeal citing quotes by Playhouse on the Square's executive producer Jackie Nichols was read aloud. Nichols was quoted as saying many major arts groups, such as Ballet Memphis, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, and Theatre Memphis, already have well-established educational outreach programs, and the Arts Council should stick to distributing state-provided ticket subsidy money."

"Oh great, we're going back to the old way," one teacher moaned in response. By "the old way" the teacher was referring to a time when arts education was based on the idea of exposure to the arts, rather than integrating the arts into the curriculum.

The Flyer later contacted Sylvia Albert, a teacher at Grahamwood Elementary, to discuss the value of arts education as has been historically provided by the CAE. Albert has worked with the CAE since its inception 20 years ago.

"Not every teacher can do what we have been trained [by the CAE] to do," says Albert. "[What you learn from teaching artists] is not what they teach you in college. And it's not 'Teach a lesson and test it' either. It's not 'This is what I'm going to tell you [about the curriculum] and what I tell you is exactly what you are going to get out of [the curriculum].' The state of Tennessee tells teachers what to concentrate on. And so we worked to make the programs fit the state's standards -- teaching multiple intelligences to the entire child, addressing all senses. Reflection was always a big buzzword at the CAE. [The programs] encouraged students to reflect [on curriculum] through the artwork."

Albert was particularly impressed by an art project brought into the schools through the CAE, centered around a work of fiction titled Harlem. The students were required to make journal entries comparing Memphis to Harlem -- a social- studies problem. Word problems were constructed around the story of Harlem to teach math skills. Health science was addressed, as were reading and writing skills.

"It was all based on standards," Albert says. Like many teachers in recent days, Albert has removed her contribution to the CAE from her workplace giving program. The workplace giving program allows teachers to have a portion of their paycheck deducted and given to a preferred charity. Memphis City School teachers have a choice of donating to the United Way, the Black United Way, or the CAE. She says she's determined to put her money where her heart is. She's not alone.

"When I called the board of education to stop [workplace giving], they said, 'Oh, another teacher dropping arts education,'" Albert says. "And when I asked if a lot of teachers were doing it, they said, 'Honey, you wouldn't believe.'"

Albert is not impressed by Schadt's claims that the CAE will continue but possibly in a different manner.

"She has already taken away our solid grounding, and teachers will have to go back to having less. We're teachers; we know about budget cuts; we deal with them every day. Programs have already been cut. All she sees are dollar signs. Well, if people really knew what these programs do for the students and the teachers, the money would be there for this."

Money on the Horizon?

Months ago, when the Flyer first contacted GMAC concerning cuts at the CAE, we had other issues to discuss as well. The GMAC requested that all questions be submitted in writing in advance of the interview. Then claiming to be "offended" by one of the questions, they threatened to cancel the interview. What question offended them so deeply? We asked if there was a conflict of interest in paying former GMAC president and board member Phil Converse more than $100,000 as a fund-raising consultant for a revenue-generating initiative the Arts Council had yet to announce. The CA later cited the figure paid to the Converse group at $165,000, saying, "Converse was helping create a 'process' for the future." No more details were given.

The as-yet-unannounced initiative is, or was at one time called Memphians for the Arts, and the Flyer was told by some GMAC sources that it would ultimately bring in millions -- an amount that if raised would be well worth the initial $165,000 investment. The GMAC told the Flyer that Converse's consulting fee was raised outside of the organization's operating budget and therefore represented no conflict of interest but declined to answer detailed questions about the fund-raising initiative.

Schadt says only that "[Memphians for the Arts] is a long-term initiative that is going to be announced at the proper time and it's going to benefit everyone, all the arts. I really think that's all I want to say about that . We're still not ready to announce [it] but we are working hard on it."

Memphians for the Arts was originally scheduled to be announced concurrent with the opening of downtown's new Cannon Center for the Performing Arts last year. When that event was postponed, so was the announcement. After the Cannon Center opened earlier this year and no announcement was made about Memphians for the Arts, the Flyer was told that the GMAC had not yet determined how it wanted to announce the initiative.

If the $165,000 consulting investment has been made and the fund-raising initiative will, as Schadt says, benefit "all the arts," it seems fruitless for the GMAC to continue to stonewall the details of the plan. The GMAC's image is battered at this point. The organization needs to rally support from the giving community, not divide it.

And if by "all the arts," the GMAC's plans include serious provisions for continued arts education, the group might be able to dissuade teachers from pulling the plug on workplace giving, mend bridges with national programs like Wolf Trap, and rebuild lost faith in the teaching artists community, as well as the education community at large. Whether the GMAC will admit it or not, the choices an organization makes during hard times reflect that organization's priorities. And while some local arts organizations may be excited at the prospect of increased attention and programming, there are a number of artists and teachers who feel like they've been told, in the words of Sylvia Albert, "We just don't matter." n

Back Story

Since we first began reporting on the tribulations at the Arts Council, some critics have asked, and rightly so, "Where was your reporter when the county announced $363,000 in cuts to GMAC's budget?" The answer: on the job.

After the county announced its plans for cutting GMAC's budget, the Flyer contacted the Arts Council about doing a story comparing the proposed cuts to a landmark study by Americans for the Arts, showing that nonprofit arts organizations spend $47.6 million each year in Memphis and "leverage a remarkable $54.1 million in additional spending by arts audiences pumping vital revenue into local restaurants, hotels, retail stores, parking garages, and other businesses." The idea behind the story was to show that funding the arts makes good fiscal sense. The GMAC responded by saying that because the county's decision wasn't final, they were not interested in contributing to such a story. We asked them to reconsider before the votes were counted and the damage was done. We never heard back, and so the story died. So why wouldn't GMAC want to contribute to a story that was clearly in its own interests? Here's what GMAC president Susan Schadt had to say in a later interview.

Flyer: You said you weren't interested in commenting on the budget cuts in light of this survey. Why?

Schadt: That study we did put out for publication. We sent a copy to every one of our elected officials. We sent a copy to the Memphis Business Journal; we feel it's a business story. We sent a copy to The Commercial Appeal. So we do think the economic-impact story is very important to us. At the time we put it out, nobody wanted to talk about it. It wasn't news, for whatever reason.

Well, if that's the case, why is it, when we contacted you about doing this story and at a time when looming budget cuts made it especially important, you said you weren't interested?

In regard to -- quote, unquote -- looming budget cuts, we really are still working with the county [to see] if they can't reinstate the funds [or] if they could wean us off over three years, which would certainly be more feasible for us to recapture those funds. We haven't heard back from them on that one, but we have met with the mayor and he understands the problem that this significant budget cut could cause.

Why weren't you interested in taking this story, by way of the newspaper, to the constituents who elect our public officials. I think, if it becomes a big issue with constituents, it can become a bigger issue with the elected officials, but you said you weren't interested in doing that. Why?

I'm sorry if that was the communication you received. We actually didn't, and still don't, want to alienate our elected officials. We know they are having some hard decisions to make. I know the county is trying to be as fiscally responsible as they can, and we want to try to work with them as much as we can. Is it painful for everyone involved? Absolutely. I'm sure it pains Mayor Wharton to have to cut arts. He specifically said that to us. -- CD

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