Times Staff Writer

California Arts Council officials say spending cuts proposed by Gov. Gray Davis last week would mean a 50% drop in grants to arts groups statewide, from $16.4 million to about $8 million.

Although the agency counts as a relatively modest item among the $20.7 billion in cuts proposed by Davis for 2003-04, the effects, said council spokesman Adam Gottlieb, would be dramatic among nonprofits that have already seen donations falter from foundations, corporations and individuals.

"People will have to close their doors," he said. "Artists will lose their jobs."

Agency officials are still deciding how to spread the cuts through their various programs, which offer grants to large and small cultural groups throughout the state, but Gottlieb said the council has already stopped taking applications from new groups seeking organizational support grants, the council's largest category. The last round of organizational support grants in September delivered about $4 million to 664 recipients.

September's organizational grants included more than $1 million to groups in Los Angeles County, including $50,000 to the Center Theatre Group's Mark Taper Forum and $40,324 each to the L.A. County Museum of Art, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Opera.

For the California Arts Council, the proposed cuts mark an austere new chapter for a 26-year-old agency whose ledger books have known good times and lean. Spurred by a $6-million bump in 1998 as Gov. Pete Wilson's tenure as governor was winding down and an additional $12-million bump in 2000 as the Davis administration was setting up, the council's annual budget more than doubled from 1997 to 2001. By 2000-01, the arts council's overall annual budget -- which also includes staff salaries, other operating expenses and a $2-million allocation to the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center for tolerance training programs -- amounted to $32 million.

Then, as ripples spread from the national economic slump that began in 2000, the arts council's budgets began heading south. The agency was trimmed to about $30 million as the state responded to the wavering economy in 2001-02. For 2002-03, that figure decreased to $20 million, including a slashing of grant funds from $28 million to $16.4 million. As part of that retrenching, arts council officials left several staff vacancies open, effectively shrinking the payroll from 44 positions to 37.

State officials said they expect to learn more when legislative panels begin meeting in coming weeks to hash over Davis' proposals. In the meantime, Gottlieb said, arts leaders are likely to start knocking more insistently on private-sector doors in search of donations.

"The entertainment community and the high-tech community all benefit from creativity in California," he said. "We're going to have a dialogue and perhaps discuss with these industries how to help arts and culture in California."

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