As donations dip, ASC cuts field trips for Charlotte-area students

After raising $800,000 less than it hoped for this year’s $6.9 million fund drive, the Arts & Science Council announced Tuesday it would no longer underwrite school field trips to Charlotte cultural venues, including the science museum Discovery Place.

Begun four years ago as the recession gripped Charlotte and the school system slashed its budget, the program paid for school bus trips that allowed thousands of students to visit museums and attend educational performances by the Charlotte Symphony and other groups.

That program was meant to be a temporary solution to connecting pupils to the venues until the economy rebounded and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools could afford to resume paying for the trips, said Robert Bush, ASC president.

“Donors that gave us temporary increases to do that said that was a temporary fix,” he said. “They were looking for the school system to step back up. They’re disappointed, and we’re disappointed too.”

In announcing $6.6 million in grants to Mecklenburg arts and cultural groups on Tuesday, the ASC said for the first time in five years it was not cutting operating grants to major organizations such as the symphony, opera, ballet and major museums.

Last year, more than 51,000 Mecklenburg students participated in field trips at a cost of $338,000, largely underwritten by donors to the ASC. Major contributors included Wells Fargo and Bank of America.

Trips ranged from performances by the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte of “Brother Rabbit Spinning Free” for elementary students to visits by seventh-graders to the Mint Museum Uptown, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture and the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in tandem with curriculums in history, social studies and language arts.

CMS officials were in an all-day workshop Tuesday and couldn’t be reached for comment.

STEM subjects covered

Last year, the program brought to Discovery Place 10,800 Mecklenburg sixth-graders from 40 schools and 400 classrooms who studied robotics and other STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and math.

“We hope the school district and their partners will find a way to let the students have this great experience they’ve had over the years,” said Catherine Wilson Horne, president of Discovery Place.

Horne said that after field trips were cut four years ago, Discovery Place increased its science outreach program, which now reaches about 50,000 students through educators who bring exhibitions into classrooms.

Overall, Discovery Place serves about 90,000 children a year from the two Carolinas and Virginia, she said.

Fund-raising campaign

This year, the ASC set a goal of raising $6.9 million but fell 12 percent short.

Bush said workplace giving campaigns, which have been in decline for years, continued to fall. Major corporate gifts were down this year too, though it was largely the result of companies involved in mergers or acquisitions.

In addition to cutting the school field trips, ASC reduced staff by leaving positions open and cut grants to recipients such as festivals, Bush said.

In all, ASC announced grants to 57 organizations, ranging from $1 million to the Mint Museum of Art for operations to $1,850 to Silent Images Inc. to teach photography to homeless children.

Mecklenburg’s six suburban towns each received $5,000 (the same as last year) for arts projects ranging from the Hello Huntersville Music & Arts Festival to a public art sculpture for Davidson called “The Dancer.”

Positive trends in drive

But Bush said there were several encouraging trends from this year’s drive:

• For the first time since 2009, operating grants to major organizations such as uptown museums, the symphony and the ballet were stable year over year. In the last five years, ASC operating support to such organizations had declined 41 percent.

• Donations from real estate, developers and construction companies were 52 percent above the goal, reflecting the comeback in those industries.

• There was a $50,000 increase in individual donations outside the workplace-giving campaigns.

• Donations from small businesses and from professional services companies such as law and accounting firms were at 6 percent over goal.

“Overall we feel good by the dollars we generated this year,” Bush said. “It’s not everything we’d hoped for, but it wasn’t as tight as past years.”