Cemetery loses arts funding

November 18, 2011
By

FOREST HILLS—Nearly a year since the Forest Hills Educational Trust (FHET) announced its suspension of arts programming at Forest Hills Cemetery, the organization is all but dead due to a loss of Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) funding, the Gazette has learned.

The future of the Lantern Festival, the cemetery’s last surviving major event, is in doubt.

MCC pulled FHET’s funding in January and will not fund it in fiscal year 2012 as a result of FHET’s lack of programming. MCC was the organization’s primary funding source.

“The organization wasn’t providing the cultural programming that was the basis of their funding,” said Gregory Liakos, MCC’s communications director.

Jonathan Clark, the program coordinator at FHET, acknowledged to the Gazette that he isn’t sure of the organization’s future.

“I don’t know. We’re trying to get something moving, but I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Clark said. “I’ve never been in a situation like this, of having to be a part of an organization where you’re uncertain about its future.”

Last December, the FHET board said it wanted to evaluate the future of the nonprofit organization that has done arts and cultural programming at Forest Hills Cemetery, outdoors and inside Forsyth Chapel, for the past 10 years.

All programming was suspended and a survey was posted on its website. The outcome of that evaluation is still unclear. Clark was asked to return a few months after previous director Cecily Miller, along with the rest of the FHET staff, left.

This year, FHET hosted the Lantern Festival, its longtime flagship event, and five walking tours. In 2010, over 6,000 people attended four large festivals, including the Lantern Festival and La Piñata’s Day of the Dead, almost 20 walking tours, and 16 poetry- and music-related events. In 2009, those numbers were even higher.

“Our understanding was that the organization we were funding was no longer operating,” Liakos said. FHET was not included in MCC’s fiscal year 2011 or 2012 budget. MCC’s fiscal calendar runs from August to July.

Liakos previously told the Gazette that FHET was still funded, but in danger of losing the funding. He told the Gazette this week that he was mistaken and that FHET in fact lost funding in January.

“When I spoke to [the Gazette] in July, I did not realize [FHET] were not being funded for FY2011…They have not been funded since [Miller] left,” Liakos clarified.

FHET could re-apply for MCC funds, but it would have to demonstrate that it meets the criteria, including providing cultural programming, Liakos said.

“It’s an unusual case. We would welcome a conversation with the organization’s leadership to discuss funding,” Liakos said.

The Gazette spoke to Clark before MCC revealed the funding cut and was unable to reach him for comment. But Clark did speak of funding problems.

“Funding is definitely a concern. We’ve been in touch with [the MCC],” Clark said.

“[FHET] is exploring the possibility of coming back,” Liakos said. “Clark is trying to set up a meeting with our staff.”

The FHET is a separate nonprofit organization from the cemetery’s board of directors. The FHET organizes cultural programming for the cemetery and acts as a friends’ group and fund-raiser for the cemetery. FHET and the cemetery board apparently had tensions that led to the programming halt.

“We don’t have real support from the cemetery for things we’re trying to do,” Clark said. “They don’t see how [new ideas are] different from what we were doing before.”

That is a far cry from what Clark told the Gazette in July: “The [FHET] board of trustees really want to keep this going. They’re the ones who brought me back.”

“We’ve been talking about a few things,” Clark told the Gazette last week. “We’re trying to find out the best way to present [ideas] to the cemetery [board] and trying to figure out how to go forward.”

“It’s sort of tricky. [The cemetery] has to support us [for FHET to function], but when they’re not supportive of particular events, its hard for us to follow our mission,” he said.

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  • Will Crosby

    This has been a real loss to the community. The programming at Forest Hills was some of the most imaginative and popular in all of Boston. I’m surprised – shocked even –  that it could be allowed to simply fall apart without some repercussions. I also can’t help wondering whether Forest Hills Cemetery enjoys some sort of reduced-tax status – and if so, don’t we have the right to expect them not to willy-nilly destroy a “community asset” like the programming that’s been developed there (with donated money) over the last decade?