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Arts Debate Reaches Grass Roots

Congress's bid to cut NEA prompts new funding proposals, local searches for alternative monies

The Fairfax Symphony upped the ante at its Valentine Pops gala fund-raiser. The price for top tables was raised to $5,000. Donors from this well-heeled suburban area of Washington snapped up eight tables at that amount, providing a major slice of the evening's revenue. The symphony tried to make them feel they got their money's worth.

``We had their names on banners in the ballroom,'' says Mark Ohnmacht, Fairfax Symphony executive director. ``They got called up on stage and had their photos taken. There was a lot of quid pro quo for the money.''

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Bucks for Bach, cash for Copland, dollars for Mahler: Whatever you call it, it's a tough business these days. Orchestras, no less than other fonts of high culture, must fight for funding in an era of increasingly video-based entertainment.

If the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is sliced from the federal budget, as many Republicans favor, regional institutions such as the Fairfax Symphony may well survive. But they could be forced to curtail programs and lay off staff.

Seen through the prism of Capitol Hill, the funding of arts in America seems to be all about Washington. On one extreme, conservative rhetoric implies that federal funds are paying for displays of obscene photographs or nude performance art all across the country. On the other, arts activists moan that major cuts in federal support will cripple ballet, theater, and classical music in many areas, leaving a culture defined by ``Brady Bunch'' reruns.

Viewed from the standpoint of regional cultural institutions, even ones only a few miles from the White House, the situation looks very different. The future of culture seems more dependent on community concerns; debate over the NEA, while important, seems less apocalyptic.

Take symphony orchestras as an example. In many areas, a symphony is the cultural equivalent of a pro sports team - a powerful symbol of local identity. Yet the 1980s and early '90s have been a difficult time for symphonies in the US. Loyalty of the typical classical-music supporter relatively old, relatively wealthy, and willing to wear formal clothing on Saturday nights has been ebbing. Meanwhile, baby boomers remain more interested in cable TV than concertos.

`THE older wave of the baby-boom generation really has not taken to the presentation of live orchestral music as their parents and grandparents did,'' says Kathy Gardner Chadwick, an economics professor at St. Olaf College in Minnesota and member of the Minnesota Orchestral Association marketing committee.

While boomers cling to their remote controls, government support for the arts has been steadily declining. Government subsidy now accounts for only 6 percent of orchestra revenues, according to the American Symphony Orchestra League. Concert income is the largest slice of the orchestral revenue pie, at 41 percent; private support (corporate and individual donations) accounts for 34 percent; endowment income makes up 8 percent; and 11 percent comes from other income.

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In dollar terms, even 6 percent of orchestra revenues buys a lot of Beethoven. Last year, the NEA made 188 separate grants in its orchestra category. The smallest category, at $4,300, paid for engagement of an American guest conductor at the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, for example. The largest, $236,400, went to the Boston Symphony to help support general operations and performance of works inspired by World War II.

NEA grants may also serve as seed money to attract other donations. It's not easy to get federal funds, point out NEA supporters: Orchestras, for instance, must provide five-year budget plans and a tape that's judged by an anonymous panel of experts.

``Even though it's a small portion of their funds, that kind of recognition makes other funders take them more seriously,'' argues John Sparks, American Symphony Orchestra League director of government affairs.

But it's clear that symphonies in America must look elsewhere than government for sustained revenue growth. Everywhere orchestras are trying to soften their stuffy image and sell themselves to 40-somethings more knowledgeable about Bob Dylan than Dvorak.

``It's a big concern in the arts community: How do we become more market-driven while keeping our artistic vision intact?'' says Ms. Chadwick.

At the Fairfax Symphony, a respected regional orchestra now in its 38th year, events pegged to secular holidays have been one answer. At Halloween, it produced a special matinee for children in costume. Around Valentine's Day, for the past seven years, the orchestra has decamped to a local Sheraton Hotel, where it plays light pops music and hosts a dinner-and-auction gala.

The Fairfax Symphony's pops event drew 820 people this year. It produced just over $100,000 in income - a not-inconsiderable contribution toward the orchestra's $850,000 budget.

Pre-concert talks are another tool the Fairfax Symphony uses to make classical music more accessible. They also sell subscription packages of three or four concerts in their classical music series. In the old days, big orchestras might sell 24-concert subscriptions only.

``There's so much more competition for leisure time these days,'' notes executive director Mark Ohnmacht.

Ticket sales account for roughly one-third of the Fairfax Symphony budget. Government grants make up one-third, and private and corporate donations another third.

The largest government grant, $83,500, comes from Fairfax County. About $34,000 comes from the state of Virginia. Some $6,500 comes from the NEA, about half the amount of three years ago. The federal government's share of the orchestra's budget is somewhat larger than these figures indicate, as a large chunk of Virginia state arts funding comes in turn from Washington.

If the NEA is shut down, Mr. Ohnmacht figures he will lose about $15,000 in all. He worries that such an event might eventually end all his state funds, as Virginia is already next-to-last in per-capita arts spending among the 50 states.

There's a lot of paperwork involved in dealing with the endowment. Every two years, Ohnmacht must submit a ream of budget paperwork and a new audition tape. But it's worth it, the symphony director says and not just for the validation of passing a federal test.

``I'm not worried about a Good Housekeeping seal of approval,'' he says. ``I'm worried about cold hard cash.''

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