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The Blue Period

Public funding for the arts in Louisiana remained constant this year, but regional arts councils face unparalleled challenges going forward.

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Long before the benches had armrests and decades before President Bush used it as a backdrop to sell promises to the nation, Charlie Smith held forth regularly in Jackson Square, embodying its fabled laissez-faire ways and selling poetry to tourists.

"That was a minimalist existence," Smith says of his seven years as a semi-starving artist, "but I didn't get skinny."

Lately, though, Smith's workload has gotten heavier, both literally and figuratively. Of course, the hurricanes, as with everything else, are credited.

"I have felt compelled to write more," Smith says. "As an artist, you get something out of times like these. Disasters are conducive to all forms of art. Most of it is born of chaos and conflict anyway."

Today, Smith dons a suit for his craft. With his dangling earring, wild white hair and shiny bald head, he lobbies the Legislature on behalf of the Louisiana Partnership for the Arts, a public-private advocacy group. He still has a gritty bravado that smacks of street wisdom, but it softens with the sound of his silver-tongued delivery.

Smith came by his political smarts the old-fashioned way -- as a high-priced lobbyist for builders and contractors during the heady days of the 1970s and '80s. Then and more recently, Smith saw his share of white-knuckle budget fights. His knowledge of the legislative halls and his longstanding relationships with veteran lawmakers make him an effective advocate, something the arts in Louisiana never had before. More importantly, he's in the game now because he believes in his client.

In one of his early moves on behalf of the arts, Smith helped kill the mantra of "art for art's sake" around the State Capitol, opting instead for a beefier "art for the economy." Smith can banter on for hours about art driving tourism, creating jobs and generating tax dollars, but he knows there's not a lot of that going on right now.

"We're facing some really tough times," he says. "Most of the artists in Louisiana depend on tourism and it's just not there. People don't look at art as a business, but it is. We're all going to be suffering for a while."

Katrina and Rita created new needs on the regional level, but public funding for the arts -- from state as well as federal sources -- has remained virtually unchanged over the past year. With no additional relief on the way, regional arts councils are being pushed to diversify their sources of income and become more self-sustaining.

At the Arts Council of New Orleans, officials are trying to keep tabs on patrons and artists that have been displaced all over the country. Shirley Trusty Corey, executive director of the council, says a smaller population and fewer artists being served locally will surely mean less state and federal money when the 2010 census comes out, but a battle can still be fought until then.

"The thing I am most afraid of is if we don't get some dollars down here to help people come back home, we will lose our entire talent pool and other arts organizations," Corey says. "The arts must be a part of the rebuilding."

The Arts Council of New Orleans receives roughly $275,000 a year from the state for Orleans Parish alone, based on a per capita formula. A like amount is supposed to be paid to the council by the City of New Orleans, but Corey says it hasn't arrived yet and she isn't sure it ever will. That money is earmarked for cultural support, such as second-lines, jazz funerals, theatre companies and individual artists. Corporate donations are down as well, which is no surprise.

"It's hard to compete against real human needs and dead bodies," Corey says. "Everything that has been given is appreciated, but it has not been enough. There needs to be more."

As each region around the state continues to deal with its own challenges, Veronique Le Melle, executive director of the state Division of the Arts, is pushing local councils to use their own cash for growth and to lean heavier on private sources. She hopes this strategy will bolster the regional infrastructure so that major cities such as Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Shreveport can be better prepared in the future to handle displaced artists in the wake of disasters.

"We are starting to turn to more investment-minded funding," Le Melle says. "We want (the regional centers) to put on their own shows and to invest in their own infrastructure. If we can be better prepared to help artists move into another region during times like these, we won't be losing them to other states."

While searching for alternative funding sources is always a good idea, Le Melle says it's now a survival tactic.

On the federal level, the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent funding agency, initially sent a small amount of emergency money to regional directors, but it went virtually unnoticed. Additionally, the NEA helped shore up an arts relief fund overseen by the state division, but Le Melle says the total federal arts funding sent to Louisiana thus far remains "about even" compared to previous years.

On the state level, the Legislature has set aside $4.7 million for the Division of the Arts in the current fiscal year, which is about $100,000 less than last year. Still, it pales in comparison to the peak $5.1 million budget the division had in 2001. Half of all state money dedicated to the arts trickles down to parishes based on population numbers; the other half goes into direct grants.

One of the reasons the arts remain flush with the state is because officials found $750 million in new cash during the regular legislative session -- mainly from sales taxes and gambling revenues -- and it was immediately pumped into the operating budget. However, the post-storm boom won't last long, according to some studies and forecasts. Even Le Melle and Smith acknowledge that major state budget cuts are probably not far away, but no one knows how that might impact arts funding.

"It depends on how we keep up with our grassroots," Smith says. "If we do nothing, we will be cut more. But we are no longer in the habit of just saying, 'Please don't cut us.' As long as any cut is proportionate, then I can't complain because the arts will be in the same boat as everyone else."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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