Budget cuts threaten folk arts program

Program » The key to survival may be outsourcing staff.
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The Utah Arts Council's Folk Arts Program was considered a model of its kind soon after it was established in 1976, and remains one of the nation's best.

Now, with the economy and state budget under strain, those who worked decades to build the program fear it will vanish under proposed cuts.

Under a proposal lawmakers heard last week, the arts program would face a $145,000 budget cut. If accepted by members of the Economic Development and Revenue Appropriations Committee, and later approved by vote of the Legislature, the cut would eliminate the program's two full-time and three seasonal administrative employees, leaving only a nominal budget directed by an outsourced staff.

"This is agonizing for all of us," said Margaret Hunt, director of the Utah Arts Council, who presented several programs within her agency for possible cuts. "It's painful, and there's no easy answer to cuts such as this. I particularly respect the emotion and distress to those whose hearts are tied to this work and getting this program to where it is today. At the same time, we're in uncharted waters here. That requires us to look at whatever we can do to provide services in an innovative way."

To a public more accustomed to getting its arts fix through theater, symphony and art galleries, the idea that Polynesian dancing, rural weaving and saddle making, old-time Mormon folk music and other ethnic arts might share the same stage of respect was innovative from the start.

Since its founding more than 30 years ago, the Folk Arts Program has helped research and document the artistic traditions of Utah's manifold native and immigrant communities. From the Chase Home Folk Art Museum in Liberty Park, the program hosts art exhibits and classes, as well as "Mondays in the Park" events featuring ethnic dance and western singers. In collaboration with the Salt Lake Arts Council, its staff also programs the annual Living Traditions Festival at downtown Salt Lake City's Washington Square.

Critics of the proposed cut maintain outsourcing administrative duties would be tantamount to ending the program, and that all arts programs should share equally the pain of budget cuts, rather than have some perish so others might survive.

"The kind of work they conduct requires sustained effort over time," said William "Bert" Wilson, professor emeritus of folklore and literature at Brigham Young University and past member of the program's board. "The people who run the program are in many ways the program itself."

Wilson said he wrote Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. a letter emphasizing the program's importance. In many ways, it serves as both an arts and community outreach program, helping each new wave of immigrants acclimate themselves to life in Utah by sharing their artistic heritage. Soon after it was formed in 1976, the program worked with Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese communities. During the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the program worked with Bosnian immigrants. Much of its work today involves helping immigrants from Sudan and North Africa document and preserve their oral histories and arts.

Meg Brady, professor of folklore at the University of Utah's department of English, said the proposed cut has attracted attention of the American Folklore Society, which she said has written Gov. Huntsman to express concern.

"This is the only program the council administers that focuses on ethnic and rural arts," Brady said. "This [proposed cut] is essentially a proposal to wipe out a program looked upon as the premier folk arts program in the country."

Hunt said she hopes revenue forecasts due the middle of the month prove less worrisome than anticipated, mitigating the cut. "It's not yet a foregone conclusion," she said.