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There was a lot of pathos at yesterday’s D.C. Council oversight hearing for the city’s cash-strapped arts commission (“the arts form human connections”) and no shortage of good economic sense (arts create jobs, improve neighborhoods, and assist local businesses). So much of both, in fact, coming from more than 20 D.C. arts administrators, that after a while the testimony began to feel like a particularly subpar revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
I was following via webcast, and Julianne Brienza‘s testimony made me snap to. “We can’t get the appropriate amount of money in the District of Columbia,” said the executive director of the Capital Fringe Festival, the scrappy and now massive unjuried performing arts festival that takes over the Mount Vernon Square area each July.
Fringe, Brienza said, is considering taking half of the festival to Maryland, to take advantage of public funding opportunities there. “Losing the funding for the arts will make D.C. a less vibrant place to live,” she said.
Posturing? Maybe—-but it certainly gave the council’s small and local business development committee something to think about. It’s easy to consider the benefits of flush arts funding. But the consequences when it shrinks?
Of course, for now the fate of D.C. arts funding is in Mayor Vince Gray‘s hands—-he’ll submit his budget for FY 2013 to the council on March 20. Fringe, like many of the arts organizations that testified yesterday, has seen the size of its grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities shrink in recent years. For this fiscal year, Fringe received $27,500 this year from the arts commission’s Festivals and City Arts Projects and Grants in Aid programs. The festival began in 2006 with the arts commission as a partner, and received a $10,000 grant. $30,000 followed in 2007, and more than $100,000 in 2008—-as part of the commission’s UPSTART program—-which allowed Fringe to expand its facilities (they bought the tent), upgrade their office, and bring in consultants. From 2009 to 2011 the festival received more than $40,000 in grants each year from the commission.
Consider Fringe’s overall finances: Their budget is now around $850,000 a year—-about 85 percent of which comes from earned revenue (ticket and bar sales). In addition to DCCAH, the contributed income comes from individual donors and foundations—-although some foundation funding is drying up. The Meyer Foundation last gave to Fringe in 2009; funding from the Marpat Foundation will end after 2013.
It could happen, says Brienza, if not in the near future. Fringe is counting on holding its last festival in it current Mount Vernon Square headquarters—-Fort Fringe, sitting on land owned by Douglas Development—-in 2013. After that, some possibilities include relocating to NoMa or the Waterfront, Brienza says.
Last fall, the DCCAH announced hundreds of grants totalling $3.7 million for Fiscal Year 2012—-a puny number compared to the more than $10 million a year the commission distributed annually until several years ago. “If the whole ship sinks here, I don’t really know what’s in store,” Brienza says, adding that D.C. residents have come to expect a certain amount of artistic activity that’s a partial result of institutional support. “I think citizens really expect all this vibrancy, but [at the moment] the money’s not going to keep it going. So what do you do?” Maybe you move to a state that’s shown a willingness to invest heavily in at least some arts.
While I had Brienza on the line, I got an update on a few other Fringe-related matters. Although Fringe won’t be using previous venues like the Warehouse and the Apothecary this year (the latter will be the site of Living Social’s new office), it’ll have programming in two Columbia Heights spaces: GALA Hispanic Theatre and the Court of 1469 art gallery.
Also, while individual ticket prices will stay at $17—-a price point that’s drawn some criticism—-the required Fringe button will drop back to $5 from $7. Brienza added that last year the average Fringe-goer in fact paid $11 a show due to package-deal discounts: “So get over it—-I mean that in a really positive way.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery