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On the Chopping Block

Facing the possibility of draconian state-funding cuts, the Egg and the New York State Theatre Institute are rallying supporters to the cause of the arts

by Shawn Stone on February 25, 2010

The pain of this recession keeps getting worse, and the deficit in the New York state budget keeps getting larger. So it shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise when Gov. David Paterson first announced that he wanted to, over a period of two years, essentially zero-out funding for the New York State Theater Institute and the Empire State Plaza Performing Arts Corporation (the organization that runs the Egg).

But it was.

Sure, last year there was a failed effort to “remarry” NYSTI and the Egg in the name of saving money, but eliminating both? Each organization has become an ingrained part of the Capital Region arts scene.

In a recent conference call with NYSTI’s producing artistic director Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder and board chairman David Morris, Metroland asked about the current status of the fight to preserve funding.

“There have been 21,000 pieces of mail sent to the Legislature,” Di Benedetto Snyder says, and more than “15,000 signatures” on a Web petition (to save NYSTI), and “1,000 signatures in person” on paper petitions.

Yesterday (Feb. 24), Morris was scheduled to testify before the Joint Arts and Tourism Committee of the Senate and Assembly.

Asked what would happen in case the governor’s proposals were adapted, Morris was blunt: “That will be the end of the New York Theatre Institute.”

According to Morris, the governor contends that the seven volunteer members on NYSTI’s board could raise the money. Morris strongly disagrees.

“The man is off his rocker. . . . It’s absolutely absurd. They don’t have time to raise a million and a half dollars in just a few months,” Morris says.

“The Americans for Arts Economic Prosperity calculator estimates that NYSTI creates more than $4 million in economic impact on the Capital Region alone,” Morris points out, and adds that NYSTI serves an audience of 40,000 people annually, employs both full- and part-time residents of the Capital Region, and owns properties in the city of Troy. In the event of a complete defunding, all assets, including properties in Troy, would revert to the state of New York.

Morris says that state support of NYSTI is “peanuts” when you consider the size of the overall budget of the state of New York.

Di Benedetto Snyder makes the case for the need for the arts—and, specifically, NYSTI.

“We are a school,” she points out. “The theater is the catalyst for our teaching. We are a service the state of New York provides for private and public schools and universities.” This includes students and teachers; NYSTI offers professional development training of the kind educators are required to take (see Opinion, page 10).

“We must acknowledge that the state of New York is having economic difficulties, the whole country, the world is having economic difficulties,” Di Benedetto Snyder says. “And we say we’ll accept our fair share of a cut.”

Di Benedetto Snyder points out that NYSTI was created in 1974, when the state was in the middle of New York City fiscal crisis—but then-Gov. Hugh Carey understood the importance of the arts.

“We were in bad shape then, too.”

“For us, our situation is quite a bit different than NYSTI’s,” says Egg executive director Peter Lesser. “Our appropriation [from the state] in the current year is less than 25 percent [of the total Egg budget]. So we’re generating income from ticket sales and fundraising.”

This doesn’t mean that the Egg could survive without state support, Lesser adds.

“We have made some strides toward self-sufficiency, but we’re not anywhere near that we could do what we do now, if funding were taken away.”

The Egg took a hit in the current budget, though the Legislature restored some of the money. This has resulted in increased ticket prices, and programs that, Lesser says, “aren’t happening.”

It was ironic when Gov. Paterson announced the cuts in funding for NYSTI and the Egg from the stage of the latter’s Hart Theater. But Paterson’s pronouncements have given many the impression that New York will no longer support the arts.

“I get calls from downstate, or out of state,” Lesser says, “from people who hear the message as ‘the governor wants to gut the arts.’ ”

Like Di Benedetto Snyder, Lesser is aware that some cuts will have to be made, and refers to what’s happening to the state park system.

The question is, what do the arts really mean to us, and what are we willing to pay for?