The loss of a $327,000 ticket subsidy fund will seriously threaten children's already limited exposure to the arts, Knoxville arts administrators say.
The statewide subsidies program began in 1978 to supply performing arts tickets and museum admission to public school students who could not otherwise afford to see plays, hear concerts or visit galleries. The Tennessee Arts Commission annually distributed $150,000 each in subsidy funds to East, Middle, and West Tennessee until July 2001, when the Legislature cut the subsidy budget by 25 percent, the commission's Arts in Education director Hayden Roberts says. Last April, the General Assembly voted to change the commission's programming funds from recurring to non-recurring to cut down on state expenses, according to commission executive director Rich Boyd. Consequently, the subsidy program will disappear July 1 of this year, unless the commission can secure improvement money. That prospect is unlikely, Boyd says.
The Arts and Culture Alliance of Greater Knoxville (formerly the Arts Council), distributed commission subsidy monies to schools in the 16-county Knoxville area and other nearby towns. In 2001 the alliance allotted 40,000 subsidies worth $96,000 to students receiving free or reduced lunches. Rates of participation in a given school year varied from 5 percent to nearly 100 percent, from 11 students to more than 1,050. The most money was awarded to Spring Hill Primary in North Knoxville; the least to Bonny Kate Elementary on Martin Mill Pike.
Students used subsidies to attend the McClung Museum, Knoxville Museum of Art, Circle Modern Dance Company, Jubilee Community Arts, The Bijou, Knoxville Opera, Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, Actors Co-Op, InterAct Children's Theatre for the Deaf, and other institutions.
Student ticket prices before subsidies typically fall in the $4-5 range, too steep for the poorest children. Subsidies also cover transportation to venues. Refusing to leave a single child behind, many schools have chosen to cancel their bookings altogether. Those cancellations have turned the crank on arts organizations' tight financial vice.
Gryphon Productions first felt the impact last November when three schools canceled reservations for The Diary of Anne Frank, executive director Robert Nathan says. The loss of 500 student theater-goers reduced the play's attendance by about 20 percent and its revenue by $2,000, or 10 percent of the show's budget. Since the cancellations came two weeks before the play opened, Gryphon was unable to recoup its investment.
Several school groups have been unable to attend The Bijou's Having Our Say due to lack of funds, according to artistic associate and consultant Harry Bryce.
The Knoxville Museum of Art stands to lose $20,000 if 10,000 annual student visitors cancel their trips. KMA public relations and marketing manager Letitia Kastura says such a deficit may force KMA to scale back its Meet the Master program, which brings artists to schools, or cut smaller exhibitions such as its current "Sofa" show.
The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra sees 20,000 school children a year, 3,500 of whom use ticket subsidies. Since the KSO's total annual attendance doesn't top 200,000, education and outreach manager Anna Kimbrough says she expects to see a financial loss.
While budget cuts, the recession and dropping attendance rates have hurt arts organizations across the board, the ticket subsidy cut hasn't affected every company. Ginger Cook, executive director of The City Ballet, says her group does not charge students for performances, but uses corporate sponsorship to pay production costs. Students visiting The City Ballet therefore do not rely on subsidies.
Private donations may offer some relief to other organizations, but they are by no means the answer, Nathan says. He says donors are inundated by requests for cash, and patrons balk at donating several times what the state supplies.
But arts administrators say the damage to children's education and cultural exposure overshadows their own financial woes.
"I'm much more concerned about all this as a parent than I am as a theater producer," Nathan says, noting the U.S. Department of Education's findings that students with exposure to the arts achieve better grades, 10-15 percent higher standardized test scores and 10 percent higher attendance and are 30 percent less likely to have trouble with the law.
Knox County's own budget crisis has made it difficult for the school system to expand its arts programs.
"Essentially, they're hitting kids with a double dip," Nathan says.
Local arts organizations have begun campaigning to revive ticket subsidies. The alliance is organizing a letter-writing campaign and has collected several thousand signatures to a petition, which subsidy participants such as The Actors Co-Op distribute at shows. Knoxville arts activists also plan to lobby the General Assembly on Tennesseans for the Arts' Legislative Arts Day, March 19.