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Queens culture groups feel crunch

Queens’ cultural institutions, often among the most vulnerable in a recession, have trimmed payrolls and programs as funding declined, but the economic downturn could pose an even tougher challenge in the next fiscal year.

A spot survey of the borough’s artistic centers by TimesLedger Newspapers found that Queens’ cultural leaders have already taken steps to preserve their programs, such as shortening hours, cutting back on programming and, in some cases, reducing staff. Public, private and corporate funds, the lifeblood of these groups, have been drying up quickly.

“We had one funder that lost a lot of money with Madoff,” said Tom Finkelpearl, director of the Queens Museum of Art, referring to the Queens native accused of a $50 billion Ponzi scheme. “We had a lot of funders who were in things like real estate or banking.”

He pointed out that none of the museum’s board members has disclosed plans to cut back on donations, “but ... not all the funders we have traditionally gotten money from are going to continue to fund us. It’s virtually impossible to find new money in the current climate.”

Although the city and state budgets are still being hashed out by government officials, preliminary proposals have called for steep cuts in the cultural sector. While President Barack Obama has proposed a more than $800 billion economic stimulus package geared toward rehabilitating city and state economies, it remains unclear how it could affect cultural institutions.

“For everybody, part of the problem right now is forecasting. It’s impossible to forecast,” said Sheila Lewandowski, executive director of the Chocolate Factory Theater in Long Island City. “It’s very, very difficult, and the stress level from everyone is very high because of this ambiguity.

Ellen Kodadek, executive and artistic director of the Flushing Town Hall, said though public funding from the city and state only makes up part of her institution’s operating budget, its absence is clearly visible and hardest to replace.

“It’s operating support. It’s the most difficult type of fund−raising support to get. It’s the nuts and bolts, the infrastructure of your business,” Kodadek said, noting that by contrast private funders often give to specific programs.

“We lost 41 percent of our city funding — that’s for the fiscal year we’re currently in. The magnitude of that kind of loss ... we’ve had layoffs, we’ve all taken pay cuts, public hours are reduced to weekends only. When you’re faced with this stringent of an economic cut, you really look at every single facet of your institution.”

Funding from private donors has started to disappear as well. Queens Symphony Orchestra Director Lynda Herndon said priorities are shifting as sources ranging from personal contributors to major corporate funders are stung by the economic meltdown.

“Individuals have less money to spend. With corporations, if they’re laying off 5,000 employees, their mission may change. You may not be as much of a priority anymore,” Herndon said. “Look at the banks. At one point, you could have gotten money from JP Morgan and you could have gotten money from Chase Bank. Now they’ve merged together and you’ve got one lump sum coming from both and you’re not even sure if you’re going to get that.”

Overall, most cultural institutions in the borough said the effects of the recession have been moderate, but are nonetheless present and may be a harbinger of things to come.

At the Black Spectrum Theater in Jamaica, founder Carl Clay has been cutting back on advertising and performances. The Queens Symphony has been performing with smaller groups of musicians to save on payroll costs. The Kupferberg Center at Queens College is planning a more conservative schedule for the coming year.

Some smaller organizations, like the Thalia Spanish Theatre in Sunnyside, have felt less of an immediate impact but are bracing for the worst.

“This year we have all our ducks lined up, but next year it’s anybody’s guess,” said Thalia Administrative Director Kathy Giaimo, who said some corporate contributors like the troubled Citi Group have stopped their flow of funding altogether.

Geoff Rawling, president of the Rockaway Artists Alliance, said his organization has not been drastically affected, but what happens to the group, which relies heavily on city and state grants, after the current fiscal year is anybody’s guess.

“We’re all just penny pinching,” he said.

Despite the tribulations, however, Kodadek said the arts are more essential now than ever, which is a source of pride and optimism for both her and her staff.

“It’s been emotionally challenging. On the other side, the arts bring joy to the masses,” she said. “You really get to experience on a day−to−day basis the positive effect it has on people. So you just have to keep moving forward and doing the best with what you have.”

Lewandowski, meanwhile, said audiences at the Chocolate Factory are larger than ever.

“People do want this live experience, but we are a cheap date,” she said.

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e−mail at sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 138.

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