Arts funding was the focus of most of a three-hour budget oversight hearing led yesterday by Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. Thomas, who chairs the D.C. Council’s Committee on Economic Development, questioned Office of Motion Picture and Television Development Director Crystal Palmer, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities Interim Director Ayris Scales, and more than a dozen representatives of city arts organizations about the proposed budget for the 2012 fiscal year.

Despite the long roster of witnesses, the hearing was more explanatory than investigatory. Much of Palmer’s testimony described the basic functions of her office. Thomas, who repeatedly called himself a movie buff, took a minute to talk about meeting Clint Eastwood during last fall’s filming of J. Edgar, a biopic about the inaugural FBI director.

Palmer, who requested a 2012 budget of $726,000 for operational and personnel costs, was more interested in proposing changes to the District’s film incentive program to keep it competitive with those offered by film commissions in other states. She cited the case of Veep, an upcoming HBO series about a vice president played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, which shot some location footage around Washington but ultimately settled on production in Baltimore after receiving a generous package from the Maryland Film Office that includes free studio space and over $1 million in production credits and tax breaks. The pilot episode alone, The Baltimore Sun reported last month, is estimated to infuse $6 million into the Maryland economy. Palmer contrasted Veep with State of Play, a 2009 film which spent nearly $7 million in the District but only received about $200,000 in sales tax rebates. Though plenty of films and television shows use footage of Washington, most focus on federal landmarks.

“The incentives make you film Washington beyond the monuments,” Palmer told Thomas, noting that State of Play included scenes in Adams Morgan and on the Southwest Waterfront. Palmer suggested that changing the incentive program to include private donations alongside public funds would keep D.C. more competitive with Maryland, whose $7.5 million program helped it land Veep. She also suggested the Council and Mayor Vincent Gray spend a bit more face time with studio types. “If you want to let Hollywood you’re serious about doing business you need to get them in front of the executive and legislature,” Palmer said. Thomas jumped on this last suggestion and was quick to tell the chamber his brother-in-law works for Universal Studios.

The hearing on the Commission on the Arts and Humanities quickly went toward a discussion of the proposed transfer of federal National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs funds from the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts to DCCAH as outlined in the White House’s 2012 budget. Gray’s proposed budget reduces DCCAH’s local funds from $4.3 million in 2011 to $3.92 million, but adds the $5 million it would receive under the White House proposal. The witnesses representing local arts organizations were uniformly skeptical of the NCACA transfer, with George Koch of Artomatic calling it a “red herring” that would leave D.C. arts funding dependent on a source of revenue that could be yanked away when Congress votes on a federal 2012 budget.

“The council needs to be aware of the pressure recent NCACA cuts put on local government to increase service to the largest D.C. arts employers,” Robert Bettman, chair of the D.C. Advocates for the Arts, said. Bettman was keen to play up the financial divide between larger arts organizations that receive NCACA grants and smaller groups like his Bettman Dances company which apply for—but do not always receive—DCCAH grants. Bettman also verged on class warfare, saying that “it’s not the children from Sidwell Friends who need DCCAH funds to experience and practice the arts. But if local funds aren’t restored for competitive arts grants, there will be less access to the arts for those who need it most.”

Rebecca Medrano, executive director of GALA Hispanic Theatre, which does receive a grant from NCACA as one of the program’s smaller beneficiaries, focused on the District’s Summer Youth Employment Program. As she told City Paper last month, repeated cuts to both DCCAH and federal grant programs have forced her to cut back on the number of jobs she can offer to District youths. Anne Corbett of the Cultural Development Corporation appealed to Thomas as a patron of the arts: “Your new leadership on this committee”—Thomas replaced Council Chairman Kwame Brown—”can bring new energy.”

But it was Scales who had to bring the cold water. Though she sympathized with the contingent of artists preceding her, the assessment for city arts funding was bleak.

“Arts funding has been decreasing for years and the horizon does not look good for 2012,” Scales said.