Letter to Common Council: 2023-2024 Arts Funding in the City of Buffalo Adopted Budget and the Buffalo Arts Commission’s Recommendations

Date: August 30, 2023

Dear Buffalo Common Council members,

Thank you for fighting for the arts and recognizing how crucial it is for a city to invest in itself by funding its cultural heart. We appreciate your support and presence for the arts throughout the year: cutting the ribbon for a new mural at the William-Emslie YMCA, hosting the Hertel Avenue Mural Fest, promoting the Pine Grill Jazz Reunion as well as Music in the Park, working to develop the Buffalo African American Museum, and supporting art and culture in all your districts.

The City funds the arts through grants in aid to anti-violence and cultural organizations. The 2023-2024 adopted budget set this amount at $400,000. However, for several years now this funding has largely stalled; though it is adopted in the budget, it only trickles out, leaving many arts organizations under resourced without any city funding.

We ask that the Council take these three steps:

  1. Ensure that budgeted arts funding is actually distributed;
  2. Help establish an annual and transparent process by which arts organizations can apply for and receive city grant funding, as outlined in the City Charter;
  3. Ensure that the City of Buffalo contributes $15,000 in matching funds to be a full partner in developing a comprehensive Cultural Plan for Buffalo and Erie County.

1.  Distribution of Funds
The City of Buffalo Adopted Budget for 2023-2024 includes $400,000 in funding for Cultural and Anti-Violence grants. This amount was requested by the Buffalo Arts Commission, which per the City Charter is empowered each year to make funding recommendations (more on this process is included below). We are grateful that the Council adopted the budget with $400,000 in funding for arts and anti-violence organizations. As much recent research has shown, a thriving and dynamic arts landscape creates a powerful economic engine.

Nonetheless, this number reflects a profound reduction. For the preceding two years, $465,00 was initially adopted. Twenty years ago, the city spent over a million dollars annually specifically for arts organizations. And as recently as the 2018-2019 Adopted Budget, the City approved $860,000 for Grants in Aid for Cultural and Anti-Violence Funding.

Compounding this cut to arts funding is the City’s inaction to distribute the funds. In recent years, only a small percentage of the adopted amount of this funding line has been distributed to arts and anti-violence organizations (see Table 1 below). For example:

  • In fiscal year 2021-2022, the $465,000 adopted budget was revised down to $305,000, and only $6,500 was actually disbursed. This is 1.4% of the originally adopted budget.
  • In 2022-2023, again with an adopted budget of $465,000, only $39,000 made it to arts organizations as grants. This is 8.4% of the originally adopted budget.  

As Majority Leader David Rivera pointed out in the Council’s February 14, 2023 Finance Committee meeting, it’s unacceptable that this money is not flowing out.  Just as we water what we want to grow, we must fund what we want to see flourish, and that means more than just words of support.

2.  Funding Process Clarification
We ask the Common Council to work with the administration to open an application process for $400,000 adopted in 2023-2024 budget. According to the City Charter, the Buffalo Arts Commission shall annually accept “applications for arts and culture funding, on forms approved by the Commission and supplied by the City Department of Administration and Finance…” The Charter then lists the criteria that should be considered in annual arts funding decisions: “service provided to the public, enhancement of the cultural life of the community or contribution to a particular field or artistic discipline.” The Charter states that the Commission is then empowered to submit a list of recommended recipient organizations to the Mayor, the Commissioner of Finance and Administration, and the Common Council.

In recent years, any decisions on the small amounts disbursed from this funding line were ostensibly handled by the City’s Law Department. As Council Member Wyatt asked in February, “Why would we have attorneys trying to vet these, when we actually have a commission that’s chartered to do this work?” We agree that the Buffalo Arts Commission should receive the applications and make funding recommendations.  This can be accomplished through their Arts and Culture Funding Advisory Committee, as mandated in the City Charter. However, if this Committee cannot be appointed and reconvened urgently this year, the Buffalo Arts Commission as a whole should be empowered to oversee the process in the absence of the Committee. (This approach was recommended by the Commission in their annual funding letter submitted to Common Council in February.) The Commissioners are experts in their respective fields, and they are both knowledgeable about Buffalo’s cultural landscape and committed to supporting arts organizations.

This will help avoid confusion about the process and results of funding requests. This year, for example, some of the budgeted grants in aid have already been distributed, although there was no announced application or RFP process. It is not clear who chose the recipients, or how, nor was it clear to whom those monies have been given. We urge the Common Council to work with the Administration to shed light on those decisions, and to establish transparent procedures and reporting going forward. The involvement of Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance (GBCA) and Arts Services Inc. (ASI) as trusted resources could help with that. 

Putting a solid process in place now for the City’s annual arts funding will ensure that the approved 2023-24 adopted budget allocation is distributed; will mean that the wheel doesn’t have to be reinvented next year to continue the process on an annual basis; and will also help Buffalo’s smaller cultural organizations, ensuring the process is equitably administered across all the city’s districts.            

3.  Cultural Plan

We are also asking that the Council push for the City to make a funding contribution for the development of a Cultural Plan. This is something that many municipalities have and is an opportunity for the council to help determine Buffalo’s future. As the Arts Commission noted in their request for this funding, a cultural plan would “enable arts & culture to make a greater economic and community-wide impact.”  The $15,000 requested is “last dollars in” and would match Erie County’s contribution.  Work on the project is about to begin, with all but the City’s contribution secured for this $155,000 project, which has also been broadly supported by the philanthropic community of local foundations.  It will be completed under the auspices of Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance with Arts Services, Inc. serving as fiscal agent.

As Catherine Gillespie of the BAC pointed out in February to this Council, “It would be really good if the City was seen as a coordinator of the arts.” Helping fund this effort would ensure that Buffalo’s commitment was clear and forward-looking.

The Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance is an organization that harnesses the power of artists and organizations to advocate for community growth and cultural investment.

Partnership for the Public Good is a community think tank that works to build a just, sustainable and culturally vibrant Buffalo Niagara.  Together we encourage the council to work to improve our city’s arts landscape, and we offer our own resources to help make that happen. This issue offers a genuine opportunity for our artistically and culturally rich population to work with government to make the future we want.

Thank you again for your support of the arts, and for your work to ensure that Buffalo remains a vibrant cultural showpiece.


Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance Co-Chairs
Scott Behrend, Artistic & Executive Director of Road Less Traveled Productions  – sbehrend@roadlesstraveledproductions.org
Laurie Torrell – ldtorrell@gmail.com

Partnership for the Public Good
Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Executive Director – andrea@ppgbuffalo.org
Caitlin Crowell, Community Researcher – caitlin@ppgbuffalo.org