Local arts leaders weigh in on proposed elimination of the NEA


If you’ve been following, or involved in, the visual and performing arts for any length of time, you’ll know that this isn’t the first time conservatives in the power have threatened to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts.

Ronald Reagan wanted to eliminate it in the early 1980s. At the end of that decade, Jesse Helms and other conservative members of the United States Congress attacked the NEA because it had given small amounts of money to artists Andres Serrano, who created a beautiful series of photographs that included one of a cheap plastic crucifix submerged in urine, and Robert Mapplethorpe, whose photographs included some that could be seen as homoerotic. One year later came the celebrated cases of the “NEA Four,” performance artists working separately who had received grants for controversial pieces.

So President Donald Trump’s recent budget proposal, which eliminates virtually all federal funding for the arts — not just the NEA, but the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — is nothing new to arts leaders.

It’s a battle they’ve waged before, and they’ve come away battered but not defeated.

This time, local arts leaders say, the threat feels different.

“It does feel more disheartening,” said Richard Russell, the executive director of the Sarasota Opera.

NEA grants helped fund this season’s production of “Dialogues of the Carmelites” and also support the opera’s youth programs.

Mary Bensel, the executive director of Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, is even more pessimistic.

“I think it’s a fatal blow to the arts,” she said. “A fatal blow. I really do.”

Eliminating the funding is a dumb idea. It’s a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage of the federal budget. You’ve probably seen social media memes designed to show how little money it is, from X rounds of golf for Trump, to X percentage of one day of security at Trump Tower, to X number of cents per year per person.

It’s a minuscule amount, one that won’t make a dent in national debt or help pay the huge increase in defense spending in the new budget. It won’t affect your taxes one little bit. But that’s not the real point.

The thing is, it’s money well-spent.

NEA grants are leveraged, which means the organizations have to raise at least as a much money from other sources than they get from the NEA.

“We can go to our donors and supporters and tell them, ‘Your donation will be doubled,’ ” said Steven High, executive director of the Ringling Museum.

The Ringling in Sarasota relies on grants from the NEA, the NEH and the IMLS. If you’ve been to the Ringling, you’ve probably seen exhibits that the museum couldn’t have mounted without grant money from those organizations. A federal grant helped pay for the preservation of a collection some rare and important circus photographs. Those photographs may have been lost forever without that money, High said.

Landing an NEA grant isn’t easy to do. The project has to be judged worthwhile by people who know what they’re talking about. Even the most deserving projects are long-shots. The Manatee Performing Arts Center doesn’t even apply, because the process is so arduous.

“You almost need a full-time person just to apply for these grants,” MPAC executive director Janene Amick said.

That imparts some prestige on the organizations that get the grants (The NEA doesn’t give grants to individuals any more), and helps them pull in money from private sources. And the money is mostly spent locally, and almost all of it is spent in the United States.

The arts are good for business. The arts create jobs. The arts draw tourists, and people from neighboring counties, who spend outside money here, not just in museums and theaters but in restaurants and hotels.

Perhaps even worse than the potential loss of direct grants from the NEA is the ripple effect. The NEA gives money to state and local organizations that fund artists. Those groups will now have less money, and there will be more demand from arts groups that can’t go the federal government anymore.

That’s what mostly worries Carla Nierman, executive director of ArtCenter Manatee. Her organization doesn’t get money directly from the NEA.

“I do think it’s going to impact everybody,” she said. “There’s going to be a trickle-down. The groups that get NEA funds are going to hit up the state and county agencies.”

The grants aren’t elitist. They’re not doled out to benefit effete big-city institutions and artists. Every Congressional district in the country gets NEA money and benefits from it.

MPAC’s Amick does not sound as dire as some other arts leaders. She says she wants to see where that money is going. If it’s going to help feed or educate kids, she said, you can’t really argue that it should go to a theater company, she said.

Arts leaders are unanimous in what they say we can do. “Communicate with your legislators” is a phrase you hear often when you talk to arts leaders about the subject. Write a lot of letters, send a lot of emails, sign petitions, go to town hall meetings, make phone calls, and even just go to their local offices every once in a while.

Your representatives and senators are, in almost all cases, reasonably bright. Eventually some of them will understand why cutting arts funding is just plain wrong. Even if they don’t understand, some of them will listen to the people who vote.

Marty Clear: 941-708-7919, @martinclear