Hurting by helping?

To the Four County Players, one of the oldest theater groups in the area, there’s something rotten in Richmond. In fact, the 30-year-old Players are so riled up that they’re contacting their legislators and going public with their opposition to bills that– ironically– are intended to help the arts.

At issue? One bill that would establish the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities as gateways to state arts and cultural funding, and another bill that would allow the Virginia Arts Foundation to raise private funding.

On the face of things, it would seem that the two bills would help the arts in Virginia. After both gubernatorial candidates last year requested a proposal for funding the arts, the VCA, VFH, and a couple of other Virginia arts orgs– Virginians for the Arts and the Virginia Association of Museums– came up with a plan by which nonprofit arts groups would submit funding requests to either VCA or VFH. Rob Vaughan, president of the VFH, calls HB 1308 “a rational funding plan so there’s not feast or famine” for organizations seeking state funding. A peer group would review the requests, and their recommendations would be forwarded to the governor and General Assembly.

Vaughan says the bill doesn’t take away the opportunity for legislators to support their own arts projects, and it gives arts groups two chances for funding because they could appeal to their legislators.

“Why appoint bureaucrats to do what our representatives have been elected to do?” asks Ben Foster, treasurer for the Four County Players. “Our elected representative has a much better feel for what the Four County Players do than a bureaucrat sitting in Richmond.”

Foster says those “bureaucrats sitting in Richmond” have their own ideas about how the money would be doled out, and if his group applied for funding from VCA, “we won’t get them because we’re not handicapped accessible.” 

Not meeting standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act is a serious consideration, according to Peggy Baggett, executive director of the VCA. “If they’re not in compliance with ADA, it’s not proper for the Commission to be funding them,” she says. And in fact, the VCA turned down a funding request from the Players several years ago. Baggett notes there are resources available for groups seeking ADA compliance.

Four County Players rents an elementary school built in the 1930s in Barboursville. So far, the group has raised $100,000 in a $350,000 campaign to bring the old building up to ADA standards– and none of that has come from state funds. Crumbling steps have been replaced, and an elevator is on order. Still to come: handicapped-accessible restrooms.

Another impediment to funding from the VCA, says Foster, is that “we don’t pay actors. We do this for love of theater.”

Baggett says the VCA does give priority to organizations that pay actors. Community groups like Four County Players “are not excluded under current guidelines, but others get priority.”

The Players’ objection to HB 1065– the bill that allows VCA to solicit funds from private sources– is the competition for scarce arts dollars. “The tendency would be to give money to the VCA rather than the Four County players,” says Foster. Responds Baggett, “Any time you raise private money, you’re in competition.”

HB 1065 passed both legislative houses. The other, HB 1308, was tabled until next year, and the Four County Players plan to be ready to oppose it. “Anybody who puts obstacles in our way, we’re going to fight them,” vows Foster. “The Virginia Commission for the Arts is one of those obstacles.”


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