New Jersey froze its grants to cultural organizations this week, endangering concerts, artist-in-residence programs, and exhibits during the rest of the 2009-10 season, according to arts advocates.

"This really blindsided us," Alan Willoughby, executive director of the Perkins Center for the Arts, in Moorestown and Collingswood, said yesterday. "With all the previous devastating cuts, we never expected [the state] to renege."

The Treasury Department, grappling with a $800 million state budget deficit, has frozen grants in "discretionary categories," spokesman Tom Vincz said yesterday.

In July, the treasury promised to distribute $14.4 million to more than 150 cultural groups during fiscal 2010. Vincz could not say how much money would have been distributed this month.

Last week, the department postponed indefinitely a $20 million payment to municipalities.

"The money is on hold for cash flow and budgetary purposes as we work through requests" about finances with Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie's transition team, Vincz said. He said the arts payment was considerably less than the $20 million in frozen municipal aid.

Gov. Corzine last month ordered state agencies to find $400 million in savings. Other cuts are being considered, Vincz said.

He said he could not guarantee that the arts grants, derived from a tax on hotel and motel occupancy, would be restored. "We'll do our best to keep commitments in place" made in July, he said.

Symphony in C in Camden will play its sold-out concert on Saturday, but without the $194,000 payment it expected this month, the season's three remaining major performances are in doubt, said Pamela Brant, the group's vice president for marketing and public relations. Each costs about $80,000 to stage.

Also at risk are education programs such as the symphony's four-day-a-week string lessons at the LEAP Academy charter school in Camden, she said.

Like many organizations, the symphony drew on a line of credit to pay for fall programming while it awaited state funding, Brant said.

"We have other grants coming in that will pay off the debt, but there won't be enough cash left to continue the season," she said.

The freeze also surprised Rutgers-Camden's Center for the Arts, which expected $180,000 to help fund education programs for Camden and suburban public schools.

"Rutgers is respectful of the budgetary challenge that the state is in," said university spokesman Michael Sepanic. "This is breaking news. We don't know what it means."

Willoughby called Perkins "one of the lucky" organizations that had already received the bulk of its $200,000 annual grant. He said he was not sure how the center would cope if it lost the outstanding $70,000 payment because it had cut staff and programming "to the bare essentials" over the last two years.

"In the Camden community gardens program, we've done one mural a year for the last 10 years, but this year we put the program on hold," he said.

"What does [the freeze] mean for nonprofits already just eking by?" asked Mark Packer, president of ArtPride, a state coalition of about 200 nonprofit groups. "This is an industry that has already been struggling as a result of diminishing public support" caused by the weak economy.

The board of Appel Farm Arts and Music Center in Elmer, where Packer is executive director, this year staged a benefit concert instead of its annual spring folk festival because of economic uncertainty.

"We actually made a little money for a change," he said.

Many organizations use the government's grant promise as collateral to borrow money, Packer said. Now there's a "sense of uncertainty of whether the money will ever come."

Sandra Turner-Barnes, executive director of the Camden County Cultural and Heritage Commission, said she remained hopeful that the group would receive its $53,696 in January. Many developing artistic groups depend on "regrants" from the commission.

"It would be horrendous if the funds are not received," she said.

Contact staff writer Cynthia Henry at 856-779-3970 or chenry@phillynews.com

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