Touring arts grants shrink but still vital

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Capital News Service
LANSING — As the state’s budget shrinks, money to support arts programs is harder to come by.
The number of grants that once supported thousands of cultural activities, like those awarded as part of the Michigan’s Arts & Humanities Touring Program, have been drastically reduced.
The program, a partnership between the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the Michigan Humanities Council (MHC), supports nonprofit organizations by covering up to 40 percent of the expenses for touring performers, artists and exhibitors.
This year, the program administered by MHC provided $56,823 for 112 programs.
In Ann Arbor, Dicken Elementary School received $842 for two assembly shows; in Royal Oak, Addams Elementary School received $660 for a dance program and Upton Elementary School received $238 for a music performance. Bishop Kelley Catholic School in Lapeer received $600 for a circus program; and in Petoskey, the Crooked Tree Arts Council got $960 for a concert.
During the height of the program in the 2000s, the MHC received around $150,000 for grants, said Phyllis Rathbun, touring program administrator for the MHC.
“We used to get well over 400 applications and we used to fund between 350 and 400 programs,” she said.
That practice, however, slowed in the mid-2000s when its funding was cut to around $65,000, according to Rathbun.
Now, she said, the MHC receives around $45,000 from the Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the rest of its money comes through the organization’s own nonprofit dollars, including $1,850 donated for the touring program.
Rathbun said that the MHC does what it can to sustain the program despite budget cuts because it’s popular among nonprofit groups and promotes economic development.
“Many of the cities and recreation programs have festivals or concerts in the park. It brings a lot of people into the city, and that always provides economic benefits to an area,” she said.
Performers in the touring program are contracted to do fewer performances now, but the grants still bring economic benefits to them as well, she said.
For a school, library or community organization to receive funding, a performer must be registered in the touring program, which accepts artists every three years.
Brainstormers!, a children’s theater show based in Royal Oak that motivates and encourages creative writing, has been involved in the touring program for almost 15 years, according to its founder, Geoff Safron.
Safron said that while his company may be criticized as an unnecessary curriculum addition, Brainstormers! adds value to a child’s learning experience.
“What we do is admittedly a luxury item. We’re what schools call enrichment programs — we aren’t part of the core education, but we add that extra layer of fun or elevated theatrics and learning combined that schools find useful,” he said.
The program uses professional actors and improvisational theater to spark the writing process by showing children that virtually any idea is useful in creating a story. The program celebrates students’ writing by performing on stage the stories that they write.
He said the touring program grant provides crucial funding for some of his clients, but he’s also looking into other grants for schools, corporate grants and scholarships.
“Even when the granting program is in full force with the MHC, the funding is finite. Their cycles are such that when the money is gone, that grant cycle is over and then there’s a period before the next one begins.”
“In those lapses we need other sources to offer to schools,” he said.
While grants for this cycle are already gone, the MHC will begin accepting grant applications on Oct. 1.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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