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Arts agency may lose $500,000 due to lack of access for disabled


The National Endowment for the Arts is threatening to cut off more than half a million dollars in funds to the Maryland State Arts Council if the agency does not make the places it conducts business accessible to the disabled by the end of the month.

In a letter to the MSAC dated June 28, the director of NEA's civil rights division said an inspection last month of the council's headquarters and two downtown Baltimore locations used to conduct MSAC meetings revealed that the organization violated regulations that prohibit programs receiving federal funds from discriminating against the disabled.

The letter from the NEA's June D. Harrison, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun, warned the arts council that a failure to take "appropriate action" within 30 days "will result in the suspension of funds."

Marilyn Corbett, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Economic and Employment Development, of which MSAC is a part, said yesterday, "We hope to work all this out with the NEA. They have a goal of making arts facilities accessible and we concur with that goal." She said the MSAC and the NEA had been going "back and forth" on the issue for several months, and admitted the letter came as "a bit of a surprise."

DEED believes that its own conference center in Redwood Towers and the Maryland Communications Conference Center in the Legg Mason Tower, where the council holds its public meetings and those of its grant-making panels, could be brought into compliance with the regulations with minor changes, she said. These include more curbside access for wheelchairs and hydraulic doors to rest rooms, she added.

MSAC headquarters, in a historic building at 15 W. Mulberry St., is "obviously not accessible," Ms. Corbett said, but she added the council was hoping to obtain $70,000 to undertake extensive renovations and construction of a series of ramps to make it so. The NEA has suggested the arts council relocate to a new, fully accessible facility, she said.

The NEA's inspection and subsequent letter was prompted by a complaint filed last fall by disability rights activist Marilyn Phillips, 47, of Hampstead, a polio victim who uses a wheelchair.

"It sets a precedent that the MSAC has the responsibility to provide access," said Ms. Phillips, who added that she would fight to see that state funds were withheld from arts organizations whose programs are not accessible to the disabled.

At stake with regard to the MSAC's compliance with Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which bars discrimination against the disabled, is some $546,000 in NEA funds -- $489,000 in a basic state block grant and another $60,000 in special challenge and artists-in-education grants.

The money amounts to 7 percent of the MSAC's $7.8 million budget, which provides grants to arts organizations, local arts councils and individual artists. If the MSAC loses the NEA funds, it could result in a nearly 10 percent cut in the amount the council funnels to qualifying groups.

The threatened cutoff comes on the heels of the MSAC's decision last month to make an across-the-board 10.3 percent cut in funding because of reductions in the council's state appropriation. The agency also decided to withhold until Dec. 31 10 percent of the amount it did award in the event more cuts in its budget are ordered.

NEA spokeswoman Virginia Falck yesterday declined to discuss the letter, citing agency policy not to comment on "correspondence between the endowment and grantees or applicants." She said the NEA could only "confirm we've been in touch with the council about civil rights issues."

Ironically, the MSAC last fall sponsored a one-day conference on handicapped accessibility designed to encourage state arts groups to accelerate or in some cases initiate efforts to make their offerings available to the disabled.

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