County poised to pony up for public arts funding 

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After decades of shortchanging small arts and cultural organizations in public funding, the Monroe County Legislature this month is debating a county budget that would provide a significant financial boost to those groups.

County Executive Adam Bello has proposed a spending plan that allots $500,000 for the organizations next fiscal year, which begins in January. If approved by legislators, the increase in funding to small arts and cultural groups would be the largest in at least 30 years.

The proposal is a sharp turnaround from that of previous administrations that, year after year, set aside $45,000 for small organizations.

“The truth is that the county didn’t do enough to support these vital organizations before the pandemic struck,” Bello said in unveiling his budget.

Monroe County has been under scrutiny for both how much it allocates to arts and cultural organizations annually — about $1.4 million — and how that money is distributed.

The lion’s share has historically gone to nine legacy institutions, including the Rochester Museum and Science Center, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, and WXXI Public Media, the parent of CITY.

Meanwhile, $45,000 has been reserved for what the county defines as “mid-sized” organizations, meaning those with annual budgets of between $100,000 and $1.5 million. In most years, that meant grants of less than $5,000 being awarded to about a dozen groups.

click to enlarge Bleu Cease, executive director of the Rochester Contemporary Art Center. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Bleu Cease, executive director of the Rochester Contemporary Art Center.
Bello’s budget holds to that “mid-sized” definition, and maintains the funding streams for the nine stalwart institutions. What has changed is that the share for those “mid-sized” groups has been greatly expanded.

It is unclear how many more arts and cultural organizations could be eligible for those “mid-sized” grants. But county spokesperson Gary Walker said the intent of the boost was to fund more organizations than in the past.

Bleu Cease, the executive director of the Rochester Contemporary Art Center and a vocal critic of the county’s arts funding process, applauded the proposed increase.

“This is big news,” Cease said. “It will have a significant impact and may put us in line with our peer and benchmark communities.”

That Monroe County lags behind peer counties in New York when it comes to funding arts and cultural institutions was the subject of a CITY investigative report in January that laid bare the contrasts.

RELATED: If Rochester is a 'City of the Arts,' why don't we fund the arts?

For instance, Erie and Onondaga counties, which encompass the cities of Buffalo and Syracuse, invest far more broadly in the arts. Erie last year budgeted $6.6 million for 88 arts and cultural organizations. Onondaga set aside $1.3 million for 46 groups, including 32 that received grants of $10,000 or less.

What has evolved in Monroe County, leaders of small arts groups say, is a two-tiered system of haves and have-nots that pits august institutions with well-heeled patrons against less-glamorous groups that serve more racially and economically diverse audiences.

click to enlarge Reenah Golden, founder of The Avenue Blackbox Theatre. - PHOTO BY ERICA JAE
  • Reenah Golden, founder of The Avenue Blackbox Theatre.
Following media scrutiny of the county’s funding practices for small arts and cultural groups, officials took some corrective action.

The Monroe County Legislature earlier this year awarded grants of between $2,500 and $20,000 to small arts groups that were financed by a controversial rainy-day fund tucked into the county budget.

Bello later created a $2 million grant program for small groups using federal pandemic relief funding. Some 65 grants were awarded, according to the county.

Reenah Golden, founder and artistic director of The Avenue Blackbox Theatre, said her group, which has traditionally been unable to access funding, received grants from both initiatives.

“In terms of process and whatnot and knowing now that many of the Black- and brown-led organizations that were left out in past budgets are now in the system and on the radar of the county and the county executive, that’s promising,” Golden said.

David Andreatta is CITY's editor and can be reached at [email protected].

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's life editor and can be reached at [email protected].
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