Carmel council seeking ‘autonomous’ arts grants process

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Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard does not support a City Council effort to shift control of the city’s annual arts grants from his office to the Center for the Performing Arts.

The council is weighing an ordinance that calls for the not-for-profit to appoint an Arts Fund Committee that would earmark public funds for organizations it determines are “a vital and necessary part of the arts community.”

Now, the mayor accepts applications from the city’s Support for the Arts Fund and submits his grant recommendations to the council for approval. This year, members held up more than $700,000 in funding for months over concerns about a possible budget shortfall.

Finance committee Chairwoman Luci Snyder introduced the measure this week, saying it is an attempt to remove “politics and personalities” from the grant-making process—and get arts experts involved.

“We support the arts, but we are not arts professionals,” she said.

The ordinance would cap grant funding at 1 percent of the city’s general fund budget, about the same amount now distributed each year. After the council allocates the money, the Center’s committee would choose recipients through what Snyder described as an “independent and autonomous” process.

The 2-year-old Center for the Performing Arts, which gets more than  $2.5 million in direct support from the city, would not be eligible for the grants. But organizations that share space in its City Center arts complex would.

Snyder said the proposal is a sign of the city’s faith in Center leaders’ ability to make decisions that benefit the arts as a whole.

“It lends gravitas and prestige … if their internal committee makes the choice,” she said. “Supporting other groups is good for the complex and for the community.”

Center CEO Tania Castroverde Moskalenko said she is honored by the show of confidence, but the organization’s board still needs to review the proposal and decide whether to participate.

“It speaks volumes about the trust they have in the financial stewardship of the center,” she said, but “there are pros and cons to taking this on.”

She speaks from experience: The Germantown Performing Arts Center in Tennessee accepted a similar responsibility during her tenure there. Moskalenko said overseeing outside grants is a big order for an organization that already has a lot on its plate.

Then there are the political considerations. Brainard said in an email that he opposes the current proposal despite its similarity to Indianapolis’ approach, where a panel of outside experts makes arts grant decisions.

“We specifically made the decision to do it differently when the arts grant program was established" so that elected officials controlled public money, he wrote.

Brainard prefers the process established when the arts fund was established in the early 2000s: The council allocated funding and he disbursed the money after consulting with an advisory committee.

He said the current system, where the council signs off on the grants, is not ideal because it delays the process.

The new ordinance—sponsored by Snyder, council President Rick Sharp and Councilor Eric Seidensticker—now heads to the finance committee for discussion before a vote by the full council. Assuming the sponsors all vote for the proposal, it only needs one additional "aye" to pass.

What’s your take on the idea?

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