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Cultural Art Funding: Money Misappropriated!!!

NYC/DCA Town Hall Meeting 4.21.15 at Riverside Church of NYC/Riverside Theatre.

My name is Byron C. Saunders – I am a professional arts management consultant and happen to be the House Manager and Box Office Manager for Riverside Theatre.

But more importantly to this town hall meeting, I need to let you know that I have served with distinction and honor as a grants panelist for the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs for 6 years. I have also served as a grants panelist for six years with NYSCA. I have served as a grants panelist with the NY Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Georgia Council for the Arts, the City of Atlanta Department of Cultural Affairs, the Fulton County Arts Council, and the Southern Arts Federation.

In addition to serving on these austere Arts Funding Agencies, for eight years I was the Executive Director for the Queens Historical Society preserving the history of the 2.5 million people of Queens NYC. I have also served as the Executive Director of two of NYC’s registered city, state, and national historic landmarks, the Kingsland Homestead the Home of the Queens Historical Society and the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum which happens to be NYC and NYS oldest historical landmark built in 1652 and is one of the 10 oldest wooden structures in the United States located in East Flatbush Brooklyn. I have over my past 40 years run five professional theater companies, produced Broadway and Off Broadway theatrical productions and served for 7 years on the Georgia Film Commission. So what I am about to share with you and this audience is a professional opinion that I believe cuts to the very core of an issue that continues to be ignored and is the main problem that keeps growing with no end in sight.

Some serious questions need some serious answers as to why the Cultural Arts Funding sources (City, State, and Federal) for the past 30+ years have not complied with city, state, and federal guidelines with respect to sub-contracting with minority and women owned businesses as mandated by “Affirmative Action” and the use of public tax dollars and contract laws. Forget all these proposed studies and surveys…answer this first…!!! Really…just how many times are you going to ask our arts institutions about the percentages of minorities on their Boards of Directors, Administrative Staffs, etc., etc., etc. and do nothing to those organizations and institutions that just tap dance with you because they know that nothing will be done to them as they continue to play that type of merry-go-round game with you.

The study that is really long overdue is the one which documents why you keep funding institutions that violate contract laws with respect to the use of the public dollar. For years, the major cultural institutions have skirted this issue of working with or collaborating with minority and women owned businesses as mandated by city, state, and federal contract laws for those awarded public funds and being in compliance with the set-aside programs under the “Affirmative Action” guidelines. The arts have never been evaluated in this manner ever.

The end results of this lack of contract oversight has resulted in almost no institutional growth for many of the small or mid-sized arts organizations that lacked institutional development funds. Those institutions only received just enough money to present the art, thus stymieing any capacity economic growth and development.

That process with respect to set-aside programs for access of the public dollar and how it relates to “women owned and minority owned businesses” under the affirmative action guidelines and joint venture projects has very specific dialogue in creating contracts for the use of all public money.  It doesn’t say contracts for building contractors only.  The language specifically says contracts for use of the public dollar.  Why have the arts been allowed to circumvent the law and its provisions to aid and assist women owned and minority businesses?  That law was set up to even the playing field and give us a better chance to survive…not for the demise of our culturally and women owned businesses.

It is my opinion that this aspect of contract law has been freely ignored and violated when it comes to the arts.  Consequently, many of our fine minority owned institutions and organizations have been systematically left out of the sharing of the public dollars made available for the arts.  The overall effect of this practice has left many a fine African-American organization underfunded and undercapitalized to stabilize its institutional development.  We have been given money to do the show or create the art, but no money for institutional development…no money to build or buy the real estate or build the facility to be the home of our art and culture.

With no funding for institutional development…over the long haul…creates a plot for disaster with the loss of many good organizations and institutions dedicated to preserving, protecting, and presenting our art and culture.  Over the past 30 years, how many have we lost or are about to lose?  How many can you (yourself) count?

The solution is to make sure that we challenge our local, state, and federal agencies that disperse these funds to comply with the law with regards to contracts for use of the public dollar.  We must demand accountability. 

Another real issue, and I have been pointing this out to every panel that I have ever served is that your grant application is in need of an overhaul. We your arts groups are always encouraged to collaborate. However, your application is not and has never been collaborative friendly. The application is and has always been slanted towards the larger institutions thus when it comes to evaluating the applicant, the larger institutions will always set the bell curve for funding considerations.

Lastly, recommendations to all arts groups…stop relying on public support to sustain your budgets.  Become more pro-active in increasing the earned income base of your particular organization or institution and show a healthier financial profile.  A healthy earned income base shows fiscal responsibility and forces the giving institutions and corporate community to acknowledge the strength of your base support for matching dollars through philanthropic largesse.  This is exactly how the so called major institutions continue to get most of the arts dollars.

This problem is not unique to New York City.  It is being systematically orchestrated throughout the entire country and is actually an ongoing form of institutional racism and elitism.  The key is to not be seen or reviewed as a welfare organization.  Aggressively pursue public/private partnerships that create a better support system for your program/project presentations and for institutional development.

Thank you very much. God bless you all.

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Written by byron saunders

Byron C. Saunders - Arts Management Consultant / Actor / Director / Producer / Historian

Byron’s many credits currently include working as an independent Arts Management Consultant helping artists and arts organizations with grants administration, fund development, marketing, public relations, event planning, and capacity growth and development.

Based in NYC, most recently, he was the Acting Assistant Director at the Louis Armstrong House Museum located in Corona, NYC.

Byron, for the past five year, was blessed with his own radio show: The BCS Experience: History-Arts-Culture-Politics in Review and Discussion that was heard every Wednesday from 5-6 pm (EST) on www.goproradio.com network. This internet radio talk show took a look at the rich history – African American History - of known and unknown historical facts and present day events and how they definitely shaped the future of African Americans in this country and around the world. My show was the new ‘Underground Railroad Express’. Next stop, your neighborhood. All aboard to freedom and freedom land.

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