A Season of Faith’s Perfection for the Arts in NJ

January 6, 2010

Laura Aden Packer, Program Director, Arts

Finding Forrester

I was watching “Finding Forrester” a couple of nights ago. I may be the only person in the Western Hemisphere who hadn’t seen this film yet. The plot in brief: A gifted, African-American teenager with great writing ability, who lives in the Bronx (Rob Brown), finds an unlikely tutor and mentor in a reclusive Scotsman who wrote the “great American novel” (Sean Connery).

On one occasion, the character played by Rob Brown is suffering from writer’s block and Connery’s character hands him an essay he wrote in 1960, entitled “A Season of Faith’s Perfection” and encourages the young man to use the title to inspire his creativity.

I was thinking about that title and it struck me that it could be the headline for what transpired in the nonprofit arts community last week.

In mid December, the state’s art community was ambushed by the news that all New Jersey State Council on the Arts grant payments had been frozen by the state’s Treasury Department. These were payments that were due to organizations based on award announcements last July and contracts that were signed and executed in the fall. Here it was, right before the holidays, and arts organizations throughout the state were just being told that payments they had been promised and were anticipating might never arrive…or at the very least were going to be delayed until the new administration was sworn in. We all fervently hoped that things would turn out for the best, but it was certainly difficult to have faith that they would.

Yet on the day before Christmas Eve, word was received that payments would be released! And sure enough, checks started arriving at theatres and museums and dance companies throughout the state the week between Christmas and New Year’s.

This didn’t just happen by chance. Thanks are due to a tremendous number of people who worked tirelessly – in an incredibly short amount of time – to thaw the frozen funds and who had faith that they could make a difference.

We may never know why, exactly, the Corzine administration released the grant payments. There is plenty of speculation, but no certain answers. But first and foremost I know I speak for all of my colleagues when I say that I am eternally grateful to whoever or whatever it was that convinced the Governor to do the right thing.

An enormous debt of gratitude is owed to ArtPride, the state’s arts advocacy organization, its executive director, Ann Marie Miller, and ArtPride’s executive board, who sprung into action immediately, as they have so many times before, and made sure the message that needed to get out was clear and unequivocal: the arts are part of the economic solution and withholding promised grant dollars would not help solve the state’s significant financial dilemma. (A special shout-out to Mary Puryear, Gabriella Morris and The Prudential Foundation for providing ArtPride with an emergency grant late in December).

And thanks to the dozens and dozens of arts leaders who sent out ArtPride’s action alert to their patrons which resulted in over 11,000 e-mails being sent to Governor Corzine, Governor-Elect Christie, and our state legislature in just one week.

Thanks are also due to the Star-Ledger’s arts reporter, Peggy McGlone, who ensured that the story of what this freeze would mean to arts organizations, their employees, their artists, their patrons and their vendors was told to a broad audience. Although the Star-Ledger later ran an uncharacteristic editorial that infuriated the arts community, they had the grace to run a spirited and incisive op-ed piece a few days later that was written by Ann Marie Miller and Mark Packer, ArtPride’s President (and, in the spirit of full disclosure, my husband).

There were countless people behind the scenes working the phones, using every contact they had to get the message across that grants from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts (NJSCA) come from a dedicated revenue source – the Hotel/Motel Occupancy Fee – and not property, sales or income taxes. That dedicated revenue source was established in 2003 to provide funds for the state’s arts, history and tourism industries, and brought in over $90m to the state of New Jersey last year, only $16m of which was dedicated for arts funding (the majority of the funds raised by that fee actually go to local municipalities and the state’s general coffers).

And of course we thank everyone in the Corzine administration and on Governor-Elect Christie’s transition team who urged the release of these funds. The arts have some wonderful and influential friends who were working relentlessly behind the scenes. Our faith in them paid off.

On the home front at Dodge, I am especially grateful to my colleagues, Dodge President David Grant, and the Dodge Foundation Board of Trustees who immediately recognized that we had to do something to help the arts community that we have invested in and believed in so strongly throughout our 35 year history. Our board authorized the establishment of an emergency loan fund, which would have provided zero interest loans to our arts grantees whose payments from the NJSCA were stuck in the frozen pipeline. We were dotting the “i’s” and crossing the “t’s” on the final loan overview and application and were ready to hit the send button to our grantees when word came through that the payments were going to be released. Fortunately, it won’t be necessary to provide these emergency loans now, but it was amazing – and gratifying – to see how quickly the board and staff could work together to find a way to be of assistance.

So despite an awful and frightening interval in which the fate of arts organizations throughout our state hung in the balance, this holiday season could not have turned out better. It was indeed a season of faith’s perfection!

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