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Chelsea, Hell's Kitchen Theaters Bracing for Budget Cuts

By DNAinfo Staff on March 16, 2011 7:50pm  | Updated on March 16, 2011 5:08pm

Manhattan theaters are bracing for a proposed 10 percent budget cut by the state.
Manhattan theaters are bracing for a proposed 10 percent budget cut by the state.
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DNAinfo/Lily Rothman

By Lily Rothman

Special to DNAinfo

CHELSEA — Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen theater supporters are fighting to stop proposed budget cuts that would slash funding for the state agency that helps keep neighborhood shows in business.

Governor Andrew Cuomo's proposed budget includes a 10 percent reduction in grants from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA).

With nearly half of all Off-Off-Broadway venues in the city being in Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen, the potential loss of arts funding has many there on edge.

"We're going to have a struggle on our hands," Assembly Member Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) told Community Board 4 recently.

The state agency gave out just over $3.7 million to theater organizations across the state last year, according to its website. Recipients in Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen included the Irish Repertory Theater and the Joyce Theater.

While private donations are the star players in most local theaters' funding, state grants play a crucial supporting role — particularly in helping pay expensive Manhattan rents, theater operators say.

"When you put a lot of sweat equity into building a space with comfortable seats and air-conditioning and a lighting grid, it's easy to lose but hard to gain," said David Pincus, chair of Community Board 4's Theater Task Force and outreach director at the WorkShop Theater on West 36th Street.

Less money can also translate to fewer performances. Pincus noted some theaters try to save money by shortening their seasons and renting the space during the rest of the time. But with other theater companies also tightening belts, there are fewer takers, he said.

Nancy Manocherian, founding artistic director of The Cell, a performance space on West 23rd Street, said her theater does not receive any government grants — but even her company is not immune to the impact of a reduction in public funds.

"When state budgets are cut, we get an influx of artists hoping for support from the private sector," she said. As the head of a small organization with a small space and modest budget, Manocherian said she has to turn away far too many of those artists.

Theater cutbacks also impact local businesses. At Nisos restaurant on Eighth Avenue, right between the Joyce and Dance Theater Workshop, waitress Fatime Shabaj noted that the eatery's pre-theater menu is a consistent draw for customers.

"That is what the city wants, that's what the artists want and what the neighborhood bars want," Pincus said, talking about theater performances.

Members of the New York City Arts Coalition, an advocacy group, have been making trips to Albany, asking lawmakers to limit the damage. The group also anticipates a similar fight over the mayor's upcoming budget for the city Department of Cultural Affairs.

"We won't be advocating for no cuts — the difficulties for the state are too great for that," said Norma Munn, chairperson of the Coalition.

For its part, the community board's Theater Task Force is proposing its own money-saving measures: a property-tax abatement and a change in commercial utility rates for performance spaces.

"We all realize that we're living in a different economic world and it's really tough," Pincus said. "But right now we're planning for the good times to come in the next couple years."

The budget proposal is due April 1.