Arts organizations were hoping for some help from the economic-stimulus package. But they may be left empty-handed, and they’re blaming Senator Schumer, though Schumer’s office says he was “not aware” that a vote he cast in favor of an amendment would prohibit funding from going to cultural institutions. The original version of the package was arts friendly, with the House version containing $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts. But when the bill started receiving criticism, the Senate removed the NEA money from its version.
Then it went a step further, passing an amendment on February 6 declaring that no stimulus money could be used for “any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, arts center, or highway-beautification project.” Schumer voted for the amendment, and, though his vote was not the deciding one, the city’s arts institutions and cultural groups, already hurting from reduced state and city funding, aren’t happy. “It’s hard for me to understand how any legislator from the greatest cultural state and city in the world could not include the arts in this stimulus package when we add so much to the economy in terms of jobs and tourism dollars,” says Brooklyn Academy of Music president Karen Brooks Hopkins. “For us to be equated with casinos indicates a complete lack of understanding of what we do.”
“We are really upset. We let him know that we’re not happy,” says executive director of the Art Dealers Association of America, Linda Blumberg. “I know he wants to deliver the stimulus package, and that’s more important than anything, but I feel culture and the arts have enormous economic impact and they bring a great deal of tourism, and to be lumped with gambling casinos seems very odd, indeed.”
Schumer’s support of the amendment, introduced by Republican senator Tom Coburn, came as a shock to those accustomed to him as a champion of funding for the arts. “The Coburn amendment is not just to take the $50 million out, but expressly to forbid all kinds of arts funding.
The second part is very prejudicial and, I think, intended to appeal to a constituency of Senator Coburn’s which finds the arts an easy target for things they don’t like,” says president of Alliance for the Arts Randall Bourscheidt. “The surprising thing is that Senator Schumer voted for it.”
“Some of our institutions did have some conversations with the Senator and his staff, and he said it was a mistake on his part to vote for it,” says Antonio Quesada, executive director of the Cultural Institutions Group, which represents 34 of the city’s largest arts organizations including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City Center, and the American Museum of Natural History. “I sent out an angry email to him, saying, ‘Why would you vote for something like that?’” says one arts executive. “His office called me and told me it was some kind of misunderstanding that he wanted to correct.” Another arts leader described his response as “a kind of mea culpa.” Arts organizations aren’t happy that they may be left empty-handed, but they’re trying not to hold a grudge. “As a senior Senator, he’s not a stranger to many of our institutions,” Quesada says. “I would have to believe and take his word that, for whatever reason, it was an oversight on his part.”
UPDATE (3:56pm): Vulture just received the following statement from Senator Schumer’s spokesperson Josh Vlasto: “Senator Schumer has always been a steadfast supporter of federal funding for museums and the arts in New York and across the country. The Senator thought the amendment was only targeted to casinos and golf courses, and was not aware it also included museums. The arts community knows they have had — and will certainly continue to have — Senator Schumer’s full support.”