Sequester doesn't spare the arts

WASHINGTON — Used to operating on a shoestring budget, the arts are, nevertheless, bracing for the latest hit as the capital's constellation of federally supported museums, galleries and other cultural institutions grapples with governmentwide budget cuts.

From the National Gallery of Art to the National Archives, from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to the sprawling Smithsonian Institution, the mandatory 5 percent cutbacks will take their toll on public access, employee hours and building upkeep.

"Most agencies I know are working pretty close to the bone," said Robert L. Lynch, the president of Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit advocacy group. "The American public, at the end of the day, loses."

The $85 billion cuts in programs throughout most of the bureaucracy, known as the sequester, are in force from the beginning of March through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. The White House and Congress failed to agree on a budget deal, despite pledges early on to avoid the blunt effects of the across-the-board reductions.

In June, the National Gallery, usually open daily except for Christmas Day and New Year's Day, will close on Mondays for seven weeks because of employee furloughs. The National Archives, the keeper of the nation's historical documents, including the Declaration of Independence, will reduce hours starting this Friday, closing daily at 5:30 p.m. instead of 7 p.m.

The 19 museums and galleries of the Smithsonian, whose reach includes the National Zoo, will impose a hiring freeze, defer maintenance and delay construction projects.

The White House stopped visitor tours as of last Saturday, and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities and other grant-making groups will reduce the number and sizes of awards to arts agencies.

One bright spot is the National Cherry Blossom Festival, the popular tourist draw that begins March 20. The annual U.S.-Japan celebration of friendship will escape fiscal pruning because the $189,000 cost had been allocated before the sequester hit. More than 1 million people are expected to attend.

"To all intents and purposes, there won't be any impact on visitors, although we may cut down some tours at the monuments," said Carol Johnson, a National Park Service spokeswoman for the National Mall and Memorial Parks.

The only fallout might be that regular tours at other sites will be cut back to ensure that special cherry blossom tours, such as those led by rangers or taken by bicycle, may take place.

Apart from the cherry blossoms, the park service will have to deal with a $1.68 million trim in its mall budget, which will mean less overtime, travel and tours, as well as a hiring freeze. The famous big-budget celebrations, such as Memorial Day and the iconic July Fourth concert and fireworks display, might not be spared, either.

"Special-events cutbacks on the National Mall is a problem," Johnson said. "We're still working on our plan. We're trying to avoid furloughs."

Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said visitors wouldn't notice the impact of its $40 million hit: "We are able to keep the doors open."

The Kennedy Center, which is a presidential memorial as well as an entertainment showcase, receives federal funds for operations and maintenance and will have to absorb a $1.8 million cut. But programs and performances — which are paid for by ticket sales, contributions and competitive grants — won't be affected, Kennedy Center spokesman John Dow said.

The National Endowment for the Arts uses its federal dollars for administrative costs and to finance the grants that it awards to artists. The cuts mean that it will have $7.3 million less to pay bills and underwrite the arts. The National Endowment for the Humanities also will have to make fewer new awards at lower amounts, said Chairman James Leach, a former Republican congressman from Iowa.

Despite the impact the cuts will have on its mission, the endowment will continue to pursue its "core mandate to spur research in history, literature, philosophy and related disciplines, and disseminate to the public the knowledge and perspective that humanities studies provide," Leach said.

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