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Christie's New Jersey Budget Has Some Arts Organizations Reeling

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New Jersey Democratic representatives have had fighting words for Governor Chris Christie over agency cuts in the state budget for Financial Year 2012. Though many arts organizations were relieved in February when the governor announced the budget would continue to allocate $16 million to the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, changes to grant allocations after the budget was signed into law in June have arts leaders scratching their heads.

Specifically, the budget stipulates that three arts organizations — the Old Barracks, the Battleship New Jersey and the Newark Museum — will not receive funding in the same manner as they have in the past. The groups will now be required to apply for grants from the State Arts Council and the New Jersey Historical commission.

"It's crazy!" said Richard Patterson, director of the Old Barracks. "There are about 82 or 83 other organizations across the state that get grants from the Historical Commission fund. Either you keep us and do away with the other 80, or otherwise you keep the other 80 and you lose these larger profile places who are leaders."

The Old Barracks and the Battleship New Jersey museum will now be required to apply for some of the $2.7 million in funding that the New Jersey Historical Commission gives out. The groups are not eligible for State Arts Council grants because of the focus of their programming.

The third group affected by the grant allocation changes, the Newark Museum, has already submitted an application for funds to the State Arts Council. The museum has received state funding automatically for the past 43 years, and has received more than $2 million in each of the past two years.

According to the governor's office, the reason the three organizations are now required to apply for grants is simple.

"We just don't have the money," said Fred Snowflack, a spokesman for the Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno's office.

Smaller organizations like the Playwrights Theater of New Jersey were dismayed at Christie's final budget, since applying for grants alongside large organizations like the Newark Museum means that competition is steep. If it doesn't receive the some $200,000 in funding from the State Arts Council that it has in the past, the theater has said it may have to close its doors.

The theater's artistic director, John Pietrowski sent a letter to the governor pleading the case for mid-sized organizations like his, which he said were particularly at risk.

"The little organizations are running with no money at all," he said. "They’re not paying people a living wage, so it’s something else ... The larger organizations have a little bit of capital reserves." 

Democratic Senate spokesman Jason Butkowski was also disheartened that the governor red-lined the allocated funding.

"These are part of our shared culture, our state’s history," Butkowski said. "In an ideal world, we would have been able to fund these projects and the governor would have agreed to our suggestions. There are some winners and some losers and this is what we’re left with."

The groups hope the New Jersey Historical Commission and the State Arts Council will look favorably on them when they hand out their grants.

"The Arts Council has to weigh all applications against each other and make a wise decision," said Newark Museum director Mary Sue Price, who added that her museum was also relying on private fund-raising and a contingency plan to stay afloat.

Arts Council representatives declined to speak with WNYC about funding allocations prior to July 26 when it will award grantees funds.

In two special legislative sessions this Monday and Tuesday, Democrats tried to reverse Governor Christie's line item vetoes that included funding cuts to social programs, municipal aid as well as the arts.