UPDATE: On March 16, the Trump administration released its budget proposal to fund the federal government for the coming fiscal year. The proposal includes massive budget cuts (more than $54 billion in cuts to domestic programs in one year alone), including the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), among other federal agencies. It is now up to Congress to make a final decision, with discussions beginning in May and appropriations time rolling around in the Fall.
Here is part of the statement about the matter issued by Kate Shindle, president of Actors Equity Association:
“The elimination of NEA seed money for theatre is a job killer. Not just for the actors and musicians onstage, or the writers and creative teams who create the material. Live theatre also provides jobs for people behind the scenes, like the stage managers and crew; and the people in front of the house, like ushers, box office and concession staff as well as those who have administrative jobs. Live theatre means work for those down the block: the wait staff in the restaurant, the bartenders, the taxi drivers and the parking lot attendants, to name only a few.
All of these are jobs that can’t be outsourced. These are jobs that are locally–based and, more often than not, are small businesses. NEA funds provide the leverage that attracts other grants and investments. NEA money boosts economic growth across the country. There is so much irrefutable evidence that the arts serve as an economic engine, even and especially in cities and towns whose factories or industry jobs have disappeared. All together, the arts are a $700 billion industry employing directly 4.7 million Americans and millions more indirectly.
But the impact of the arts doesn’t end with jobs, or even with general support for the value of culture. Revitalizing these communities through the arts also leads to a significant increase in property values and thus property taxes, and shores up the ability of local governments to provide vital services for their residents. Put simply, the money provided to artists and institutions by the NEA is not about financing vanity projects. It’s about providing seed money that, for a relatively low price tag, encourages large-scale investment in community development through the arts.”
Those hip-hop-infused Founding Fathers in “Hamilton” not withstanding, it might be best to defer to the very real figure of George Washington on the matter of why the preservation of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) — now under threat of dissolution by the Trump administration — is so crucial.
As it happens, Washington’s view of the essential role played by the arts serves as the epigraph to the NEA’s mission statement. It reads: “The arts and sciences are essential to the prosperity of the state and to the ornamentation and happiness of human life. They have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind.”
Founded in 1965, and embattled on a regular basis (most notably during the “culture wars” of the 1990s), the NEA has helped support all forms of the arts in communities both large and small throughout this country. And while its financial contribution has, as one source who preferred to remain uncredited described it, “been less than the lint in your pocket” (in 2016 its budget was $148 million, or about .003 percent of the overall Federal budget, with grants distributed to almost every state and covering 19 different categories), its impact has been formidable. (The National Endowment for the Humanities has a comparable budget.)
Arts organizations see the NEA as an emblem of prestige and enduring solidity, as well as an incentive for giving by private donors and foundations. And in many ways the Endowment has been responsible for the flourishing of the arts well beyond the major urban “cultural capitals,” and has encouraged the creation of outreach programs designed to reach young and under-served audiences.
Those who think primarily in cost-benefit terms need look no further than the case of the Paramount Theatre’s Broadway Series in Aurora, now in its sixth season. The theater has become a powerful economic engine for that city, outshining the local casino on many fronts, and not only generating scores of jobs for actors, designers, musicians and staff, but spurring the growth of restaurants, parking and more. This sort of impact is universally acknowledged, and the NEA can help sustain it.
As Paramount president Tim Rater noted: “We received our first NEA grant of $10,000 this year to help underwrite the theater’s recently launched project to develop new musicals — something that has a zero return on investment in the short-term, although we hope to have a mainstage production ready in 2018. [Note: The gestation of “Hamilton” was fostered by just such an NEA-supported new works program.] We’ve submitted a proposal for $200,000 to the NEA’s Our Town program for next year to help underwrite the creation of our new school of performing arts, and to create rehearsal space and housing for visiting artists for our Broadway Series located in the building adjacent to the theater. We should have a decision from the NEA in April.”
Here is a brief look at how six Chicago-based cultural organizations — among the 48 Illinois-based recipients of grants in 2016 — use their NEA funding (noted below), and what they fear will be lost if the agency is dissolved:
Court Theatre ($15,000): “To paraphrase Samuel Beckett, we will go on, whatever happens,” said Steve Albert, Court’s executive director. “The Federal budget proposal has not yet been released [it is expected by early May], and according to my colleague, Teresa Eyring, head of the Theatre Communications Group, which advocates for non-profit theater, there is still a lot of support for the NEA on the Hill. The dollar amount of grants has been receding, in part because so many more organizations are now competing for fewer dollars. But the validation and recognition is crucial, and we value it. We have generally tied our proposals to community-based efforts or more daring projects. For example, our 2016 grant helped support our Harlem Renaissance Celebration in Hyde Park and was linked to our production of ‘Blues for an Alabama Sky’.”
Northlight Theatre ($20,000): “Last year we had an on-site visit from Jane Chu, the very helpful chairman of the NEA, and this year we received a grant that enabled us to produce Selina Fillinger’s ‘Faceless,’ a risky play for us [about the trial of a young white girl with ties to a Middle-Eastern terrorist organization]. The grant not only allowed us to develop a closer relationship with Northwestern University and its young artists [Fillinger was a student there], but gave us the ability to do tremendous outreach and foster conversations in our community. The NEA is extremely helpful in priming the pump for artistic initiatives. The year before this we had a grant that helped support the world premiere of Philip Dawkins’ hit play, ‘Charm,’ which will have an Off Broadway production this fall.”
Facets Multimedia ($65,000): “The NEA has been crucial to the support of our annual Chicago International Children’s Film Festival for many years,” said Milos Stehlik, co-founder and director of Facets Multimedia. “We generate no revenue from the festival as tickets for the 8,000 kids we reach each year are free, and we also underwrite 75 students from Chicago public schools who attend our summer film camp. We really wouldn’t know how to replace the NEA funding, and of course it is a major catalyst for raising additional funds. To do away with the NEA is to tear out the soul of this country.”
Third Coast Percussion ($10,000): “The NEA’s direct support is of great value — symbolic and financial — and it’s really sad that it is in a never-ending struggle to justify its existence,” said Robert Dillon, an ensemble member and development director of Third Coast Percussion, which won its first Grammy Award this year for best chamber music/small ensemble performance. “Art is absolutely vital to a pluralistic, multi-cultural society, and for the way it allows people to find beauty and meaning in experiences that might be unusual to them. Our 2016 grant will support a multi-media concert touring project that will explore how bodies of water provide connection in people’s lives, and was inspired by ‘Paddle to the Sea,’ Holling C. Holling’s classic children’s book.”
Instituto Cervantes: ($20,000): “The grant from the NEA is absolutely crucial to supporting our annual Chicago Flamenco Festival — a very successful program for us,” said Teresa Hernando, cultural activities coordinator at the Instituto Cervantes. “Without its support it would be almost impossible to continue. Our festival budget varies, but is between $45,000 and $60,000, and we don’t send out contracts to our dancers and musicians until after we get word of NEA funding in December, because the grant helps cover the cost of their travel and more.” [Note: The festival is now underway and continues through March 25.]
Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival: “It was an NEA grant that allowed us to present ‘Chiflon el Silencio del Carbon’ — a puppet work about miners by the very young Silencio Blanco company of Chile — in Chicago, as well as on a tour to many parts of the United States that would otherwise never have the opportunity to see it,” said Yolanda Cesta Cursach, associate director of performance programs at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Cursach, who also is the U.S. curator for Southern Exposure, an NEA-supported national initiative that provides support for the presentation of exemplary performing artists from Latin America throughout this country, noted: “The NEA enabled us to bring the show to Lewisburg, Pa. [a mining area], as well as to the growing Spanish-speaking audience in other places.”