VSA Minnesota faces national funding cutbacks

VSA Minnesota, which has served Minnesotans with disabilities since 1986, is making difficult cuts. Elimination of its newsletter, arts access awards and hands-on community arts activities are a response to a loss of funding from the national VSA organization.

A young man enjoyed a 2010 Young Dance program funded by VSA Minnesota. Photo courtesy of Young Dance

This spring, VSA Minnesota’s key funder, the national VSA organization in Washington, D.C., told state affiliates that they will no longer receive money from the national organization. This has a major impact on VSA Minnesota and the 30-plus national affiliates. In 2011, VSA Minnesota received $80,000 for programming from the national VSA organization. Support for 2012 was reduced to $36,000. For the upcoming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, 2012, there will be no funding at all from national headquarters. The cut is a huge blow to a three-person organization.

VSA Minnesota Executive Director Craig Dunn noted that in the past 18 months, about half a dozen other state affiliates have shut their doors. Some of those shutdowns have been a direct result of loss of funding.

According to John Dow, Press Director for the Kennedy Center, the National Organization on Arts and Disability, the cut to affiliates comes as the parent organization has itself sustained deep cuts. VSA is a program of the Kennedy Center’s education department. “The Kennedy Center has an ongoing commitment to support the programs of VSA that have directly impacted people living with and without disabilities for more than three decades,” Dow said.

But last year, the Kennedy Center lost nearly $10 million in federal funding for its nationwide education programs, including VSA, because of Congress’s realignment of funding for programs of the Kennedy Center and many other national programs such as Teach for America and Reading is Fundamental. The federal funding represented the vast majority of VSA’s annual budget. “It was important for the Kennedy Center to maintain VSA’s core programming, including the Young Soloists Program and Playwright Discovery Program, and its network of state affiliates,” said Dow. “The Kennedy Center is currently working to rebuild financial support for VSA and all its education programs. However, because the loss was so large, it is expected to take several years to rebuild financial support to previous levels.”

In Minnesota, other potential cost savings and fundraising measures are being explored by the organization’s board of directors and staff. Office hours will be cut this summer to four days a week, said Dunn. In his two decades as VSA Minnesota director, this is the first time partial staff furloughs have been implemented. “There are a number of other strategies we’re looking at.” Those include more corporate

“We’ve been an independent organization since 1986,” Dunn said. “One question is, do we stay independent, or do we talk to other groups about collaborating?” It is possible VSA Minnesota could work with another arts, education or disability community group about working together, be it a merger, a shared office or shared staff.

Another question is whether the group keeps everything in its current mix of programs, including work with individual artists, arts education and arts accessibility grants, programs and services.

VSA Minnesota recently notified grant recipients and winners and creators of its Jaehny Award of the loss of national funding. That has resulted in an outpouring of empathy but no donations. The loss of national funding will be emphasized in an upcoming fund drive, Dunn said.

VSA was founded by Jean Kennedy Smith, one of five sisters of President John F. Kennedy. The Kennedys have a longstanding commitment to people with disabilities as their late sister Rosemary was disabled. Another sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, helped found the Special Olympics. When founded in 1974, the organization was named the National Committee—Arts for the Handicapped. In 1985 the name changed to Very Special Arts and in 2010 it became VSA.

In 2011, VSA merged with the Kennedy Center’s Office on Accessibility to become the Department of VSA and Accessibility at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

VSA’s mission is to provide arts and education opportunities for people with disabilities and increase access to the arts for all. It is active worldwide. The national website indicates that about 7 million people of all ages and abilities participate in VSA programs around the world. This participation is in every aspect of the arts—from visual arts, performing arts, to the literary arts.

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