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County invites 'mid-sized' arts groups to apply for $20,000 in funding

Small arts organizations in and around Rochester, most of which have long been shut out of what little public funding there was for the arts, now have an opportunity to vie for up to $20,000 apiece from Monroe County.

County Executive Adam Bello on Thursday announced the launch of an online grant application portal for what the county deemed “mid-sized arts organizations” — those with annual operating budgets of between $100,000 and $1.5 million.

“We are a community focused on creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, and that legacy continues today, evidenced by our vibrant arts and cultural sector,” Bello said in a statement. “Our past experience showed us that investing in this ecosystem provided a benefit to our community, and we will inform our future with continued investments in our creative economy.”

More public funding has been a longtime rallying cry in the arts community, but efforts to push that agenda escalated in recent years as smaller arts organizations in the county banded together to demand support on par with peer counties around the state.

That Monroe County lags behind its peer counties when it comes to funding arts and cultural groups was the subject of a CITY investigative report in January 2021 that laid bare the contrasts.

For instance, Erie County provides funding to some extent for upward of 80 arts and cultural organizations, while Onondaga County supports more than 40.

Monroe County, on the other hand, gave the bulk of its funding for arts and cultural groups to nine legacy institutions, and set aside had set aside $45,000 for “mid-sized” arts groups. In most years, that meant 11 groups got anywhere from $2,500 to $5,500.

This year, the county set aside $500,000 for “mid-sized” organizations in its annual budget — a more than ten-fold increase.

In addition to facing scrutiny about how much it allocated to the arts, the county had also been under fire for how the money was distributed. Many small arts organizations have complained for years that they did not know how to access available funding.

The county’s new application portal outlines criteria for applying for grants, aims to answer frequently asked questions, and acknowledges the historical disparities in arts funding in the county.

Danny Hoskins, the artistic and managing director at Blackfriars Theatre, which has periodically received small county grants under the old funding system, welcomed the potential increase in support and transparency in the application process.

"In previous years, we've seen the grants come and wondered how that group got that money, how they applied, or how they found out about it," Hoskins said. "To have the county come out and say, 'We know this is the way it has been, we're making changes that make it easy and transparent going forward,' that tells me they are taking accountability and actively making a change that will have a considerable positive impact on local arts organizations."

The online application portal can be found at Applications are due Aug. 1.

David Andreatta is investigations editor. He joined the WXXI family in 2019 after 11 years with the Democrat and Chronicle, where he was a news columnist and investigative reporter known for covering a range of topics, from the deadly serious to the cheeky.
Arts writer Rebecca Rafferty joined CITY as an arts reporter in 2008 and served as the arts editor from 2017 to 2021. She is co-producer of the art/WORK video series.