As economy slumps, arts groups suffer, Congress told

WASHINGTON — Though audiences are flocking to plays and musical performances, the slumping economy could dim the stagelights, arts advocates told Congress Thursday in a bid to shore up support for arts funding.

Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit art advocacy organization, predicts that more than 10 percent of the nation's nonprofit arts organizations — theaters, symphonies, orchestras, and arts and music festivals — are at risk of closing this year as the stock market decline cuts into corporate, foundation and individual charitable giving.

The effect could be devastating for burgeoning arts communities, said Michael Spring, director of Miami-Dade County's cultural affairs department in Florida.

"It's pretty young and it's pretty fragile," Spring said after testifying before the House Education and Labor Committee. "Most organizations have built up endowments and can ride it out better. For Miami's community, this recession couldn't have come at a worst moment.''

For example, Spring told the committee that the Miami City Ballet made its "triumphal appearance at City Center in New York" two months ago to rave reviews.

Less than two weeks later, Spring said, the ballet announced that due to the worsening economy, it was laying off 8 dancers and reducing its budget next season by more than 25 percent. And he added, "There are more layoffs likely to come.''

He said a yet-to-be-completed survey in Miami of arts organizations found that 80 percent have laid off employees. The agency was buoyed by the hearing, Spring said, pointing to it as evidence that Congress is interested in backing the arts.

He noted Congress put aside $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts in the $787 billion stimulus package. Miami-Dade is preparing a grant for $250,000, Spring said.

"The money would entirely go toward helping to restore or retain jobs," he said.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, artists are umemployed at twice the rate of professional workers and the unemployment rates for artists have risen more rapidly than for U.S. workers as a whole.

"We want to make the point we're part of the solution," said Americans for the Arts president Robert Lynch. "The arts contribute to the nation's economy."

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