Facing his own burgeoning budget problems, Gov. Tom Wolf has directed some state agencies to rescind grant money previously awarded to arts groups.
The decision surfaced Monday when numerous cultural organizations received an email from Karl Blischke, executive director of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency, lamenting the “unprecedented impact” of the coronavirus pandemic on state finances and a resulting “marked decrease in revenue.”
“We regrettably must advise you that this means the PCA can no longer guarantee completion of processing for current year grant awards,” Blischke said. “While it is conceivable that the commonwealth will be able to process your grant award agreement at a later date this year, the outcome is highly uncertain, given the aforementioned circumstances.”
In other words, organizations seeking payback of money spent in expectation of state reimbursement — a process that the state mandates for such grants — are out of luck.
According to cultural leaders around the state, the freeze affects more than 80 grants amounting to about $1.7 million.
Officials at the PCA declined to say how many grants have been affected and for how much money. Blischke declined comment. A spokeswoman for the agency said by email that the freeze “pertains specifically to direct grants under the PCA’s Arts Organizations Arts Programs track that have not reached Treasury (which is the last stage in the commonwealth’s payment process).” She said there there is “no indication that the commonwealth will seek return of processed grant money.”
Maud Lyon, of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, said the freeze is “really huge.”
“These groups have been counting on these grants and they’ve now had the rug pulled out from under them,” Lyon said. “This is after they’ve been awarded. After they’ve been approved. After they’ve been contracted. And they’re waiting for the check.”
It’s a new blow to an already hard-hit cultural sector, she said.
“They’ve lost their spring fund-raisers,” she said. "If they are performing arts, they’ve lost their spring ticket revenue and their subscription revenue. If they are museums, they’ve lost not only admissions but all the [event] rentals.
“So we’re talking survival money for these organizations. I mean, we’re literally talking, are organizations going to get through this?”
It could not be determined how wide-ranging a freeze has been imposed. The governor’s office did not respond to several phone calls and emails.
It was unclear whether other state agencies had implemented similar freezes. Representatives of two key agencies that routinely make grants, the Departments of Community and Economic Development and of Education, said they could not immediately answer questions posed late Wednesday afternoon.
For arts organizations in the Philadelphia region, the PCA email came as a shock.
The Fabric Workshop and Museum, for instance, was in the process of gathering receipts to send to Harrisburg for reimbursement. The organization is in the last year of a three-year grant that provides about $21,000 a year.
Christina Vassallo, executive director of the workshop and museum, said her group was counting on payments for those receipts. “And then on Monday we got this email.”
“The news worsens an already precarious situation for many of this state’s cultural organizations at precisely the worst time.”
The director of another area arts organization was even sharper in his response. He asked not to be identified, saying he might face retaliation for his remarks.
“We went through all the processes, even to the final justifying the invoice, having conversations with folks at PCA and they’re saying, 'OK, it’s buttoned up, you’re ready to go, you’ll be receiving a check,” the director said Wednesday. “This seems like stolen money.”