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Why Eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts Would Hurt Rural Americans the Most

The NEA, which the Trump administration has proposed to fully defund, has long been accused of primarily serving coastal elites, when in fact the opposite is true.

Matt Dehaemers and Mark Cowardin lead a demonstration with the M’Assim Tovim youth group during a repurposed wood and brush art-making workshop. (image Courtesy of the Epsten Gallery, Overland Park, KS)
Matt Dehaemers and Mark Cowardin lead a demonstration with the M’Assim Tovim youth group during a repurposed wood and brush art-making workshop. (image Courtesy of the Epsten Gallery, Overland Park, KS)

President Trump’s proposed federal budget for 2018, released last week, made official what arts advocates had long feared: he is calling for the 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). The implementation of these cuts is by no means guaranteed — the budget’s unprecedented slashing of the social safety net and drastic cuts to major agencies will encounter resistance from Democrats and, in some cases, even from moderate Republicans. But with the Republicans controlling Congress, it is likely that some of Trump’s budget proposals will eventually be implemented. Moreover, the budget stands as a statement of the President’s priorities, a message to the country about what this administration cares about — and what it doesn’t.

The NEA has long been a target for the right and, specifically, for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative DC think tank whose budget blueprint provided the basic framework for Trump’s plan. Heritage has long argued that NEA spending is wasteful, little more than “welfare for cultural elitists.” Evidence proves otherwise. In reality, the NEA has an outsized impact in rural communities and less densely populated states, where funding from private foundations and wealthy philanthropists is harder to obtain. With a budget of only $149.8 million (that’s roughly .003 % of annual federal spending), the NEA’s resources are extremely limited. The agency partly focuses on using the funding it can provide to help its grantees — especially smaller and less well known organizations — attract additional funding from other private and public sources.

The NEA’s outsized impact on rural areas and less densely populated regions is reinforced by the way it distributes the funding it provides directly to states. Since 1998, a full 40% of the NEA’s grant-making budget has been paid out to state arts agencies and regional arts organizations as block grants through partnership agreements. In order to qualify for the partnership agreement block grants, states must develop a state arts plan, have a state arts agency that will manage the funds, and match the NEA funds dollar for dollar with state appropriations.

Inaugural Riverfest artist-in-residence Wayne White shows off large-scale puppets made in collaboration with local artists at the festival’s Sundown parade (photo courtesy of Wichita Festivals, Inc., Wichita, KS)
Inaugural Harvester Arts Riverfest artist-in-residence Wayne White shows off large-scale puppets in Wichita made in collaboration with local artists at the festival’s Sundown parade (photo courtesy of Harvester Arts and Wichita Festivals, Inc., Wichita, KS)

The matching fund requirement creates a web of interconnections in the US cultural funding ecosystem that includes 56 state arts agencies (for 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia) and six Regional Arts Organizations. The states receive NEA funding, but only if they meet the NEA’s partnership agreement requirements. The Regional Arts Organizations, private non-profit organizations that also receive a portion of their funding from the NEA, distribute additional funds to artists and arts organizations in their member states, especially for projects with a regional impact. The Regional Arts Organizations all have their own membership agreements, but they often require that their members maintain a qualified partnership agreement with the NEA, further incentivizing states to remain in good standing with the Endowment. (Full disclosure: the author is employed by an organization that receives funding from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the state art agency for the District of Columbia. DCCAH received 3.2% of its fiscal year 2017 funding from the NEA.)

The elimination of the NEA would destroy the foundation of the country’s funding network, leaving arts organizations across the US more isolated and with fewer resources for cultivating additional private and public funding. Due to inequities in state funding, certain states would feel the impact more deeply than others. In fiscal year 2017, the revenue of the New York State Council on the Arts was over $46 million dollars — by far the largest of any state arts agency. Only $866,000 of that — or 1.9% — came from the NEA. Wyoming, with an annual state arts budget of just under $1.8 million dollars, received $700,000 — or almost 40% — of its FY2017 arts funding from the NEA. According to the National Association of State Arts Agencies’ Fiscal Year 2017 Revenue Report (the source of many of the funding statistics included here), American Samoa, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, the US Virgin Islands, and Wisconsin all received 40% or more of their 2017 state arts agency funding from the NEA.

The state and regional funding networks have been challenged in recent years by cuts to state government funding for the arts. Earlier this year, the Mississippi Arts Commission (MAC) survived a Republican-led attempt to dissolve the agency and hand its duties over to the Mississippi Development Authority. Those efforts came on the heels of a budget reduction for MAC, which experienced an 11% cut in its state appropriation from 2016 to 2017. Oklahoma and New Mexico, two other states that are in the midst of budget crises, also experienced major cuts to their state arts funding from 2016 to 2017, with a 16% cut in Oklahoma and an 18% drop in New Mexico. Recent struggles faced by arts organizations in Kansas and Iowa demonstrate just how vital public culture funding is in those states, and how devastating the elimination of the NEA could be for artists and arts workers in similar funding ecosystems.

Raiding the Culture Coffers in Iowa

In Iowa, the state’s $6 million Cultural Trust was gutted by the Governor and State Legislature in January and the state appropriation to the Iowa Department of Cultural affairs was reduced by $210,958 for the remainder of 2017, both as part of an effort to close the state’s 2017 budget shortfall. On the final day of the legislative session, a provision was added to the final spending bill that eliminated Iowa’s Art in State Buildings program, which required that .5% of spending on state government buildings be set aside for public art. The program, which was started in 1979, had been especially significant for the state’s public universities, resulting in significant collections of public art on the campuses of the University of Iowa and Iowa State University.

The Des Moines Art Center (photo by Des Moines Guy, via Wikimedia Commons)
The Des Moines Art Center (photo by Des Moines Guy, via Wikimedia Commons)

Reached by phone, Jeff Fleming, Director of the Des Moines Art Center, expressed fears that the state cuts, as well as any potential cuts to the NEA, would fall hardest on rural Iowans. In Des Moines, Fleming explained, there are other options for funding, including Bravo Greater Des Moines, which is funded in part by hotel-motel tax revenue from Des Moines and surrounding communities. The state’s Department of Cultural Affairs, which makes an effort to fund projects in all 99 of Iowa’s counties, is the only major funder in many rural areas. But even for organizations that might have other options, Fleming explained, the loss of public funding is about more than the monetary value it provides. Public funding from the NEA and the state and regional funding networks brings with it a sense of validation and a feeling that artists and arts organizations in Iowa are part of a broader system of support. That connection can’t be replicated by funding from private sources. Furthermore, Fleming fears that the recent cuts in Iowa represent something more than belt-tightening, what he termed “a devaluation of culture, of critical thinking, of creative enterprises, of intellectual thought, and scientific inquiry.”

Kansas Struggles to Rebuild Its Arts Funding

Since 2011, artists and arts organizations in Kansas have experienced firsthand the damage that can come from losing access to the network of public funding for the arts. As part of his conservative overhaul of the state budget, Governor Sam Brownback used the line-item veto to completely defund the Kansas Arts Commission in 2011, making Kansas the only state in the country without a functioning state arts agency. Although state arts funding was restored in 2012, with the establishment of the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission (CAIC), Kansas went without NEA matching funds for two years, losing its membership status in the Mid-America Arts Alliance during the same period. For 2017, Kansas again struggled to reach the matching funds requirement. For this fiscal year, CAIC received $225,604 in direct funding from the state of Kansas. That allocation, along with state funding of arts-related initiatives in the Department of Commerce, met the minimum requirements of Kansas’s partner agreement, allowing it to receive $637,600 from the NEA for 2017.

State cuts and inconsistent availability of federal and regional funds have left Kansas’s arts organizations struggling to close funding gaps. In March, a New York Times article quoted Brenda Meder, whose organization, the Hays Arts Council, has struggled to survive without state or federal funding. The organization has had to cut expenditures to survive, slashing its administrative costs, reducing artists’ pay, and asking schools to chip in money for performances that it previously provided at no cost. Cuts to funding have also meant weakened networks for artists and arts organizations, according to Meder, who told the Times that artists in the state have become more “siloed” and “less engaged” since public funding has become scarce.

Art Instillation "CLOUD" by artists Wayne Garrett and Caitlin r.c. Brown during the Free State Festival in Lawrence, Kansas (photo by Ann Dean, courtesy of the Lawrence Arts Center Lawrence, KS)
Art Instillation “CLOUD” by artists Wayne Garrett and Caitlin r.c. Brown during the Free State Festival in Lawrence, Kansas (photo by Ann Dean, courtesy of the Lawrence Arts Center Lawrence, KS)

Despite acknowledging these challenges, the article — titled “Can the Arts Thrive Without Washington? A Kansas Town Says Yes” — took an optimistic tone, painting a picture of gritty and determined artists and arts lovers dedicated to supporting culture in their communities no matter what. In a letter to the editor, 19 directors of arts groups in Kansas took issue with the article’s rosy outlook, pointing to the $3.3 million in funding that flows to Kansas every year from the NEA, the NEH, and the IMLS, stating: “The arts can and will persevere, but cannot thrive without federal support.”

Hyperallergic spoke by phone to Saralyn Reece Hardy, the Director of the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas and one of the 19 signatories of the letter. “It’s not even a question of ‘are the arts important’ — of course they are,” she said. “But when discussing federal funding, it has to do with all citizens having access, so we can build the diversity of our offerings, as well as our audiences.” Hardy stated that the elimination of the NEA would be felt across the state: “Kansas is a very grassroots state. It has urban centers and it also has many rural arts organizations — all benefit from a federal presence and federal support.”

Reached by phone, Peter Jasso, the director of CAIC, acknowledged that the loss of NEA funds would have a significant impact on his agency’s capabilities and force him to re-examine its spending priorities (this year, the NEA provided a full 73.9% of the CAIC’s funding). As the sole full-time employee of the CAIC, Jasso sympathized with the determined optimism reflected in the New York Times article. “You’re used to spinning straw into gold, in many ways,” he said. “That’s the mindset that many government employees have and many arts organizations have. You’re going to keep going as long as you can and try to do the best job you can.”

Collector Hal Wert talk with visitors about the exhibition <em>Work, Fight, Give: American Relief Posters of WWII</em> in February 2017 at Mid-America Arts Alliance. (photo courtesy Mid-America Arts Alliance)
Collector Hal Wert talk with visitors about the exhibition Work, Fight, Give: American Relief Posters of WWII in February 2017 at Mid-America Arts Alliance. (photo courtesy Mid-America Arts Alliance)

Todd Stein, the interim CEO of the Mid-America Arts Alliance (the Regional Arts Organization that includes Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas), pointed to the recent congressional budget reauthorization — which included an increase in funding for the NEA for the second half of fiscal year 2017 — as a good sign. “Not only was the budget for federal cultural organizations not eliminated, it was increased and with strong bipartisan support,” he said. Still, his organization is committed to fighting for the NEA’s survival: “Our focus will be on advocacy from now until the budget is finalized.”

For her part, Hardy emphasized the importance of the connections that the elimination of the NEA could destroy. Public support, to Hardy, is about more than the money itself, but also about creating connections between artists, arts organizations, and audiences in Kansas and beyond. “It’s a network with high democratic ideals about what art should be and who it is for,” she said. “Because in America, it should be for all — and that is the mandate of federal funding. It is not for the few, it is for the many.”

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