Note: Updated May 4, 2019, with comments from the Mass Cultural Council.

The Massachusetts Cultural Council could get a 3.5 percent budget increase in July, but the state arts agency would not be able to use any of those new funds to directly support artists. That seems to be the point of language in the budget plan approved by the state House of Representatives on Thursday, April 26.

The House proposal would add $533,000 for arts and cultural funding in fiscal year 2020, which begins July 1, increasing the agency’s budget to $16.6 million. The state Senate is expected to take up the FY20 budget this month.

But “additional funds provided under this item in excess of the amount provided in fiscal year 2019 shall only be expended on direct grants to local cultural councils, non-profit cultural organizations, and public district and charter schools in the Commonwealth,” reads section 0640-0300 of the House budget proposal that seems to have originated with the House Ways and Means Committee.

“Artists should absolutely be included to be funded with Mass Cultural Council money,” says Emily Ruddock, who was yesterday named the interim executive director of MassCreative, and previously was the state arts advocacy group’s director of policy and government affairs. “They’re the heart and soul of the creative economy. They’re deserving of support.”

The Mass Cultural Council says the budget language “would prohibit Mass Cultural Council from using additional funds to directly support state-designated Cultural Districts or artists. Cultural Districts and individual working artists are central to a thriving creative sector and should benefit from public funding in the same way as nonprofit cultural organizations, schools, and Local Cultural Councils,” in a statement provided by Greg Liakos, the agency’s external relations director.

In the current fiscal year, the Mass Cultural Council reports that it has directly supported artists with individual artist fellowships totaling $256,000.

The House budget document also states that “no funds shall be expended from this item for travel costs in the BB object class,” which may be a response to reporting and commentary in the Boston Herald alleging that the agency is over spending on travel and meals.

The change would prevent Mass Cultural Council staff from being reimbursed for work travel, including driving around the Commonwealth to meet with Massachusetts cultural groups, which the agency says, “would effectively prohibit agency staff from working in communities outside Boston. The language threatens to end Mass Cultural Council’s many important partnerships with organizations and schools in Central and Western Mass, the South Coast, and other parts of the state. For context: Since July 1 Mass Cultural Council staff have spent roughly 1,433 hours in the field providing service at nearly 600 meetings/events/trainings in more than 100 Massachusetts cities and towns.”

A proposed amendment to remove this language from the budget “failed to pass,” the Massachusetts Artists Leaders Coalition reported on April 29.

“We believe the language in that amendment accomplishes the [House] Speaker’s goals of fiscal responsibility and transparency but removes provisions that would compromise the mission of the Mass Cultural Council and its ability to support communities and artists,” the Mass Cultural Council said in a written statement.

Rep. Mary S. Keefe, a Worcester Democrat who was the lead sponsor of the amendment, and I have been playing phone tag. Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat who co-sponsored the amendment, referred questions to Keefe.

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