At Wednesday’s City Council budget hearing, the Arts Council of New Orleans urged the City Council to dedicate more funding to municipal arts grants.

“We know there are competing priorities, but support for art isn’t ‘nice to have,’ it’s essential,” said Arts Council Executive Director Heidi Schmalbach. Schmalbach was joined by Joycelyn Reynolds, who has managed the the city’s grants on behalf of the Arts Council for over three decades.

The Arts Council is a nonprofit that has managed the city’s Community Arts Grants since the 1980s. Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s 2019 budget proposes giving $405,000 to the program, the same level of funding it received this year. The Arts Council has requested $450,000.

Fourteen percent of their general fund allocation goes to the management of the program. Schmalbach said that isn’t sufficient at the current $405,000 funding level. According to their presentation, the cost of running the program is expected to be $104,628 in 2019. Under Cantrell’s budget, the Arts Council would only receive $56,700 for management costs.

The Arts Council will be forced to reach into its own pocket to fill the gap, Schmalbach said.

“We love doing this work, but the cost of running [the program] has increased over the past 30 years,” she said.

The remaining 86 percent of the municipal funding will go directly to nonprofits in New Orleans. This year, the Arts Council selected 51 organizations to receive grants, including the Ashe Cultural Arts Center, Dancing Grounds, six Mardi Gras Indian organizations, two social aid and pleasure clubs, and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.

The grants are split into two categories: “New Orleans as Cultural Capital” and “More Joy,” which focuses on street culture and performance arts. With the Arts Council’s requested $450,000 budget, the average Cultural Capital grant would be $7,936. The average More Joy grant would be $2,840.

If the gap between the requested and proposed budgets isn’t filled, the average size of the grants will decrease.

But Schmalbach and Reynolds made clear to the City Council that even their requested $450,000 isn’t sufficient. The pair compared New Orleans’ grant allocation with other cities.

At $405,0000, New Orleans allocates $1.05 per capita for arts grants, they said, adding that it lags behind comparable cities.

“We should not be neglecting beauty as a value in this neighborhood,” Schmalbach said. “This isn’t charity, this is something that drives the economy.”

The Arts Council representatives also discussed their other city funded program: Percent for Art. This program isn’t funded with general fund dollars, and isn’t expected to change via the budget process, but Schmalbach and Reynolds took the opportunity to raise awareness about the funding deficits the program is facing.

The program was established in 1986 and reserves one percent of some of the city’s capital expenditures to fund art projects in public spaces. Exemptions for certain capital projects, including spending on minor streets, bridges, utilities, and certain federal projects, have meant that the one percent allocation is actually more like .2 – .3 percent, according to the presentation.

The Arts Council has been lobbying for an amendment to produce greater and more consistent funding for the Percent for Art program.

“We could have an arts program in New Orleans that’s actually a model for the United States,” Schmalbach said.

So far, the amendment hasn’t been officially considered. But on Wednesday, council members sounded enthusiastic.

“It’s a shame your budget is this low, and I will advocate for more,” Councilwoman Kristin Palmer said.

“I think you’ve got 7 people on this dais who are committed to the work you’re doing,” Councilman Jason Williams said.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...