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Culture alert


We are uncertain how to interpret a single paragraph in a 22-page report of the Baltimore City government's organizational review team.

In proposing a new Department of Community and Human Services, which would include the Urban Services Agency, Recreation and Parks, Commission on Aging and several panels with similar missions, the team recommends: "Phasing out city funding for art, culture and museum programs over a period of five years, at which point these operations should be self-sustaining. As a means of easing this transition, the [organizational review team] strongly suggests that the city's cultural and artistic centers begin charging all users a fair price for those services."

That may seem like clear language. Except that a separate Department of Arts and Culture appears in the proposed new organizational chart of the city government. Yet nowhere in the report is there a mention of that proposed department or elaboration of its responsibilities. So, we ask: Is the report recommending that only the arts and museum programs overseen by elements of the proposed Department of Community and Human Services be cut or that all city aid to culture be wiped out?

The interpretation of the arts community is that the fiscally strapped city is considering cutting all subsidies to arts institutions. There is a feeling of dismay and shock. "Our museums and cultural institutions are what makes our city great," argues Robert Bergman, director of the Walters Art Gallery. Phasing out aid to local institutions, which totals $10 million this year, would be "like falling off Mount Everest," says Arnold Lehman, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

We, too, think that the quality of life in Baltimore, an aging city of some glitter but much poverty and despair, would be immeasurably harmed if its collections of beauty, creativity and hope were curtailed. At the same time we see the reorganization panel's recommendation as a timely alarm signal that the whole metropolitan area should heed. When the suburban counties -- after miserly supporting city-based regional cultural institutions -- are proposing cuts in even that insufficient funding, why shouldn't a financially troubled city government threaten to do the same?

It is clear that Baltimore City cannot afford to continue its traditionally generous support of many cultural institutions. It is also clear that those institutions are increasingly catering to patrons who do not come from Baltimore City but from surrounding counties which refuse to recognize their proportional responsibility in sustaining the institutions.

The Baltimore City Department of Planning has set a March 1 deadline for comments on the reorganization proposals. It is not enough for cultural organizations to protest the city's cut-off plan. This is also a time to hear from the wealthier counties about their refusal to support the arts.

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