State of the Arts: Community Colleges Take on More Responsibility

Tara Nurin | April 4, 2012 | More Issues
In Camden County, new home for county arts agencies seen as creative solution to saving the arts

When Camden County Freeholder Ian Leonard introduced a resolution earlier this year to fold the public Cultural and Heritage Commission into the Camden County College system, he encountered “an outcry that’s been second to none.”

“People went bananas,” he said. “People got the idea that we were abolishing the commission.”

But in Leonard’s mind, he was doing just the opposite: entrusting the commission’s care to an entity with better resources to support it.

He came to the idea by the example set by Passaic County in 1980 and by Gloucester County last year. Using a model that could be copied more frequently as county officials seek creative solutions to save the arts in an era of severe fiscal constraint, both counties house their once-independent commissions within their community colleges.

While Camden will make only the third New Jersey county to task its college with this responsibility, the Association of New Jersey County Cultural & Heritage Agencies says the growing trend is for Boards of Freeholders to transfer control of these state-mandated County Arts Agencies (CAA’s) to departments such as Parks and Recreation or Planning. The reasoning? To prevent duplication of services, reduce overhead and remove an item from the county’s general operating budget.

“The arts have taken a beating statewide,” said Camden County spokesperson Dan Keashen, who anticipates the shift would save $250,000 per year. The savings will come from streamlining programs, probable elimination of all but one employee, and the guaranteed sale, lease or closure of the commission’s headquarters. At the same time, he said, “freeholders are absolutely committed to preserving and growing the arts, and now [the commission] will be able to use the natural synergies in the college’s arts department, as well as its academic resources.”

But when freeholders announced the resolution, tentatively scheduled to take effect before the end of the year, artists and their patrons were overwhelmed with concerns. But it was more than just the proposed cutbacks. Instead, their panic emerged over fears of losing the state and federal grant money that keeps some organizations alive.

“I have not been as informed as I’d like to be,” said Liz Madden, executive director of the Markeim Arts Center in Haddonfield, “but I’m very concerned if this takes my $5,000 annual state grant out of my budget.”

Madden would find out she was basing her worries on a common misperception about the role the state’s 21 county cultural and heritage commissions play in arts funding in New Jersey. To her relief, neither the location nor the size of their coffers impacts the grants they disperse.

Formed by statute in 1971, CAA’s administer re-grants for the NJ Council on the Arts and, in some cases, the NJ Historical Commission. The arts council receives its funding through a dedicated hotel/motel occupancy fee and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Therefore, Madden — and others who face the prospect of a dependent commission in the future — won’t lose this funding no matter how much funding the CAA itself loses. And it’s unlikely any county would eliminate its commission altogether, since the majority of its artists and cultural organizations — those too small to work directly with the arts council — would lose their eligibility for these grants.

“All small arts organizations have to work through the [state] grant process with their county commission,” explained Pam Brant, vice president of marketing and public relations for the Camden-based Symphony in C. Before reviewing and ruling on their applications, “the county is supposed to give them education and nurturing. ‘How do you go to a corporation for money?’ ‘What are best practices in the arts?’ ‘How do you develop a multi-county impact?’”

With a mission to “improve the quality of life of this state by helping the arts to flourish,” the arts council supported 550 re-grantees with grants worth $15.8 million last year. Despite the reality that arts funding is often among the first casualties of an economic downturn, the amount awarded by the council has remained relatively flat. This lack of cutbacks, joked Mary Eileen Fouratt, president of the Association of New Jersey County Cultural & Heritage Agencies, represents “the new increase” in the current era of restrictive fiscal policy.

While the arts council doesn’t take a position on a CAA’s structure as long as it meets certain supervisory requirements, Fouratt is cautiously supportive of the commission-in-a-college setup.

“I think in a year from now we will see it has strengthened the arts offerings in Camden County,” she said.
That’s the stated aim of the county’s freeholders, despite Leonard’s unpopular promise to audit the commission’s roster of programming. Before the resolution passed on February 16 he tried to reassure members of his local arts community that the merger could only strengthen the commission’s ability to award state grants, provide technical training to artists and arts organizations, and develop events to showcase the arts. According to those who have tread this path, it’s a takeover that works.

“We couldn’t do anything we do without the college,” said Maria Mazziotti Gillan, who’s been executive director of the Passaic County Cultural and Heritage Council at Passaic County Community College since it reconstituted as part of the college in 1980. “They’re paying to provide space, office supplies, personnel, anything we need.”

Diane Macris, executive director of the Gloucester County Cultural and Heritage Commission, which was brought under the auspices of Gloucester County College last year, said her unchanged $13,000 annual operating budget goes further with needed help from the college’s support staff and grant writers.

In Camden County – where Leonard is the county liaison to both the commission and the college — elected officials followed their neighbor to the south and deemed the college the best place to carry the commission’s reach beyond what was possible under its previous and much looser fiscal relationship with the library system.

“The college has a 45-year history of cultural programming,” said William C. Thompson, vice president of the college. “We’re very well established in this arena.”

To bolster his point, he identified numerous on-and-off site programs and collaborations with well-established institutions like the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, The College of Physician’s Mutter Museum, Battleship New Jersey, and Cathedral Kitchen in Camden. He and others who support this approach also argue that most community colleges boast multiple campuses, making it easier to access the art galleries, exhibitions, guest artists, and performances staged by students and members of the public.

Despite the assurances, nervous artists and their patrons remain unconvinced that an institution with a non-arts focus can handle the multi-faceted responsibilities of a cultural commission or the round-the-clock schedule of the arts world.

“Are the freeholders going to put resources into the college or will those duties get dumped on an already overworked employee?” worried Brant.

In Camden County, the commission’s executive director, Sandra Turner-Barnes, will keep her position. But Fouratt recalls one CAA that nearly disappeared after its executive director retired and left her responsibilities to a co-worker at the planning department.

“If it’s not taken over by an entity with manpower it’s just not going to get attention or focus,” Fouratt said.
This threatened loss of attention could have wide repercussions, starting with the ever-present demand for advocates of the arts to toil ever harder to compensate for declining resources. Should this prove to be the case, they’ll confront a decrease in customer service, training, and recruitment efforts – and the possibility of an accompanying decrease in public partnership opportunities and paid commissions.

Though many details on the merger remain unclear, Liz Madden is already lamenting the expected loss of the commission’s full-time curator, who’s curating one of her upcoming art shows for free. Without his services next year, her daily quandary will grow even more acute: how can she possibly sustain her organization when she’s burdened by a persistent lack of money?

“We barely get by,” she admitted, despite a $100,000 annual operating budget that many of her local contemporaries might envy. “There are weeks when I say, “Do I pay myself or the PSE&G bill? What do I need to do to keep the doors open?’”

Hers is a predicament faced by pinched arts and culture executives and practitioners across the state, and it’s one that Leonard, who spent years working for former Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts, an avid arts supporter, is not insensitive to. As such, he says he yearns for his constituents to believe that his intentions are at once altruistic and realistic, and to rest assured that any politician who would seek to abolish the Cultural and Heritage Commission or dismantle arts funding completely would swiftly see the curtains lowered on his or her career.

“You’re going to go after a constituency you don’t need to,” he said hypothetically. “It’s a very tight-knit community comprising a high proportion of children and senior citizens. If you want to go after senior citizens and children, go for it. It’d be a good show to watch.”