Last week the Flyer reported that Amelia Barton, the program director who brought national recognition to the Greater Memphis Arts Council's Center for Arts Education, had resigned, and that Anne Davey and Kay Ross, the CAE's remaining staff members, resigned shortly thereafter. The CAE provides educational programs to Memphis and Shelby County school students and trains area teachers in arts education, creating numerous employment opportunities for local artists. It has been the victim of extensive cutbacks over the past year. The resignations were no coincidence.
The Flyer first learned of potential friction between the CAE staff and GMAC president Susan Schadt late in 2002. In pursuing the story, we were not allowed to conduct individual interviews with members of the CAE without Schadt, GMAC board president Tommy Farnsworth III, and media coordinator Marci Woodmansee present. At the time, Schadt and Farnsworth maintained that no friction existed. They said that the CAE was a high priority and cuts were due only to fiscal concerns, stressing that there was no plan, official or otherwise, to eliminate the program. They said that the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts had not been cut, but rather placed in a state of suspended animation.
Mimi Flaherty, senior director of education for the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, an international organization noted for its inventive approach to early arts education, confirmed the story, explaining that Memphis and Wolf Trap had entered into a partnership and had been awarded a highly competitive $90,000 federal grant through the Department of Commerce and the National Endowment for the Arts -- triple the size of the average grant awarded.
But as of last Friday, nobody from the Memphis Arts Council had contacted Flaherty concerning the resignations and the fate of the CAE. After repeated unsuccessful attempts to make contact, Wolf Trap sent the Arts Council a fax requesting that they remove the Wolf Trap name and logo from all promotional material.
"I don't think the program is salvageable with the current leadership [in Memphis]," Flaherty says now, noting that the Wolf Trap program had brought Memphis artists both national and international acclaim. "Somebody should be held responsible," she says. "If it happens I am reneging on a federal grant, I'm not going down by myself."
Flaherty has been communicating with Barton about taking the program to the Crittenden Arts Council in West Memphis. This would not be the first time that the Crittenden Arts Council, which was recently awarded the Arkansas Governor's Award for Education, has taken over a notable program that Memphis dropped. Last year, the CAC took over Start Smart, an NEA-funded program for early childhood dance education. Memphis was singled out to develop this national education program because of the CAE's reputation and the strength of its dance community. In spite of the honor and the opportunities it created, Memphis dropped the program due to budget concerns.
"It's such a critically important program," says Sheri Bancroft, artistic director of the CAC. "We thought that maybe if we kept it on life support over here the Memphis Arts Council would realize what an important program it is, the funding situation would be figured out, and it would kick back in. But we didn't want for there not to be a program."
The obvious question is: How can a small suburban arts council fund programs that a supposedly metropolitan arts organization like GMAC deems a fiscal risk?
"Funding is hard," says Janine Earney, executive director of the CAC, "but last year our funding was at an all-time high. The reason is because we are meeting the needs of our community. We're bringing in quality programs and we are having the opportunity to tell our story. There are organizations and groups and businesses that want to fund quality programs, that want to know that the money they give is going to quality programs. And education programs, particularly arts education programs, are eminently fundable. That's what companies want to fund -- something that's worthwhile, that's making a difference, and that's having an impact on children. It all depends on what your focus is. Are you there for education or are you there just to fund other [not-for-profit arts] organizations?"
"It's unconscionable," says Flaherty of GMAC's behavior. "They are reneging on all obligations. They have no honor left. They don't care about the city schools, the Head Start program, or the area's youngest children." According to Flaherty, Memphis had been "a jewel" and a "national model" for arts education. "Now," she says, bemoaning the fact that she is going to have to go before two federal agencies and ask them to rethink their generous grant, "their name is mud in a lot of arts circles."