BANGOR, Maine — Several years ago, city councilors created a citizen Commission on Cultural Development to review grant applications from arts and cultural organizations in the city and then make recommendations on which merited funds.
Since the commission was created in 2005, the City Council has appropriated $100,000 from the general fund each year to support arts and cultural requests for funds, although last year the appropriation dropped to $85,000.
During that time, the American Folk Festival has received the lion’s share of the money, including $85,000 in 2009 alone.
Now that the folk festival no longer receives funds from the city, the current balance of about $50,000 is higher than normal. Concerned about holding the municipal budget in check, the council did not make an appropriation this year.
The outstanding question now is: How much will the city set aside for the cultural commission next year and beyond?
“To me, it has been a great success,” said Geoff Gratwick, the City Council’s liaison to the commission and an ardent supporter of the arts. “I think it will continue. Will it get the same amount of funding? Probably not, but I don’t think any councilor doubts the role culture plays in Bangor.”
“I don’t think it should go away,” Councilor Rick Bronson added. “There are things that deserve the city’s support.”
Scott R.C. Levy, producing artistic director for the Penobscot Theatre, said he hopes the council does not reduce funding to the cultural commission.
“I think funding from the local government to organizations that are only here to increase quality of life should be supported,” he said. “In my history, I’ve been happy with how the council has treated the theater. Can the local government do more? Absolutely, but they can’t just ignore existing organizations.”
The Penobscot Theatre has received funds from the cultural commission in every year except 2010. In most instances, funds were used to support a specific production.
Other local arts and culture organizations that have received funds include the Bangor Symphony Orchestra, the Maine Discovery Museum, the Bangor Book Festival and the Downtown Countdown New Year’s Eve celebration.
Before 2005, if a nonprofit organization sought funding from the city, it would go directly to the council, which often did not have enough time or expertise to give the request thoughtful consideration.
“We do not want to go back to the old system,” Gratwick said. “The question will be: How much money do we make available? I think we have a good group of councilors that feels this is essential.”
“Without the folk festival, it’s very possible that the commission will continue doing what it has been doing,” Bronson said. “They have a lot of people who get the purpose.”
For the most part, the city is interested in offering startup or seed money to fledgling organizations. In other cases, the commission has rewarded specific events rather than providing funds to support general operations.
Last year, the commission awarded $20,000 to the Bangor Symphony Orchestra for operating expenses in large part because its staff and board of directors had done such a good job righting its own financial ship. In all, approximately $200,000 was trimmed from the symphony’s annual expenses.
Levy said that in the down economy, nonprofits such as his have had to work extra hard to get whatever small pieces of public funding are available.
“The more collaborative we are as cultural and arts organizations, the better we seem to do in attracting funds,” he said. “We’re lucky [the cultural commission] exists. Most communities don’t have them.”