Rumblings that the Trump administration plans to end the National Endowment for the Arts is cause for concern among many leaders at West Michigan cultural arts nonprofits.
Just ask Kristin Armstrong, the executive director of the Saugatuck Center for the Arts.
The lakeshore nonprofit received a 2017 Challenge America grant through the NEA worth $10,000 to underwrite the cost of an exhibition that puts a contemporary spin on Native American art.
“If it weren’t for this grant, we wouldn’t have dreamed as big,” Armstrong told MiBiz. “We are one of all kinds of organizations feeling the need to put commas at the end of a sentence when seeking funding. It’s distressing to have to have this conversation.”
The Challenge America grant category offers support primarily to small and mid-sized organizations for projects that extend the reach of the arts to underserved populations — those whose opportunities to experience the arts are limited by geography, ethnicity, economics or disability.
The grant also funds an artist-in-residence who will be working with students at Saugatuck and Fennville high schools. Armstrong said the ability to provide free programming levels the playing field for schools like Fennville, where 60 percent of students receive free or reduced-rate lunches.
Despite the possible roadblocks that lie ahead for the funding, Armstrong said the Saugatuck Center plans to persevere.
“We’re not far enough down the road yet to scale the exhibition back or find other funding sources,” she said.
The Saugatuck Center for the Arts is one of dozens of nonprofits in West Michigan that seeks grant funding annually from the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA), which is funded in part by the NEA.
The majority of MCACA’s $9 million in grants annually comes from the state’s general fund, with the NEA contributing $770,600, said Executive Director John Bracey. The state distributes its share of NEA funding to arts and cultural organizations for operations support and to provide arts education in underserved communities.
“I’m not at this point overly concerned. I’m vigilant,” Bracey said of the call to end the NEA. “This is something that comes up now and then. These grants are really about access. The NEA has reached every Congressional district in the country with funding to support arts and culture.”
In fact, many cultural arts proponents believe the NEA has operated with target on its back since its inception in 1965.
“Arts organizations are so often thought of as the frosting on the cake, but we are a main ingredient in that cake for so many reasons,” said Armstrong of the Saugatuck Center for the Arts. “Research has shown that children who are exposed to the arts are able to learn far better. From an economic development standpoint, if West Michigan wants to attract the best and the brightest, we need to be able to offer a dense arts and cultural scene to potential employers.
“People take a flat view that we are the sprinkles on the cupcake when we are really a much more critical part of how communities function.”
BRACING FOR IMPACT
In addition to axing the NEA, President Trump reportedly wants to eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities, which receives comparable federal funding. The administration also has called for the privatization of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a nonprofit that oversees federal investment in public radio and television programming.
The cuts come as part of Trump’s overall plan to trim federal spending by $10.5 trillion over the next decade.
“They always say it’s about the money,” Bracey said. “If you look at the endowments, it’s such a small percentage of the budget. The NEA is a miniscule part of the federal budget.”
Each state has its own arts agency that receives a portion of a NEA’s $148 million funding, or about 0.003 percent of the total federal general fund, he added.
According to David Kiley, publisher of EncoreMichigan.com, a statewide professional theater industry online publication, the issue boils down to what the NEA funding symbolizes.
For many years, Republican legislators have been trying to eliminate the NEA because of a philosophical opposition to government-funded arts. He said the NEA’s decisions at various times to award grants to artists who create controversial pieces have offended those with strongly-held religious beliefs and more conservative-minded people who consider the work to be obscene. He’s even heard people question why trips to the opera are subsidized while baseball camps and NASCAR are not.
“They do not think that exposing children to museums, opera or theater is important,” Kiley said. “Conservatives think that arts funding is better left to corporate philanthropy. Fortunately, the economy is solid and perhaps getting better so that corporations have some money … and will step up and commit to replace funding lost because of the end of the NEA.”
With a Republican majority in both the U.S. House and Senate, Kiley said he worries that any program that has been on the GOP’s radar for elimination soon will be gone.
If the programs are eliminated, it could cause broad ripple effects throughout communities, according to Armstrong.
“If the intent of cutting or eradicating NEA funds is to keep money from going to a controversial artist, communities and individuals will feel the impact in far greater numbers,” Armstrong said.
A MATTER OF COMMUNITY
Despite the polarized political environment on the state and national level, MCACA has benefited from bipartisan support over the years.
“(Governor) Snyder and the legislature understood what the point of access to the arts and culture is for families and kids and that it is about the mission,” Bracey said. “We look at it by legislative district. What we’ve discovered by looking at that is that we are in every single Congressional district. … Policymakers understand this is all about putting taxpayer money back into the taxpayers’ hands.
“If any organization in all of government across this country is nonpartisan, it’s the arts organizations.”
Supporters say arts and cultural organizations that receive NEA grants use that as leverage when seeking funding from other sources such as corporations or foundations. The seal of approval that comes by securing funds from MCACA or the NEA carries a great deal of importance, Bracey said.
“All nonprofit organizations have to leverage using something,” he said. “If you have that seal of approval from the MCACA or the NEA, that’s saying that ‘we do really good work,’ which is really, really huge. Even though it may be a small amount of money, the additional federal dollars to places like the Detroit Institute of Arts or the Grand Rapids Art Museum can be used as leverage.”
For smaller organizations such as the Upper Peninsula Children’s Museum, a MCACA grant that includes $2,000 in NEA dollars can form a critical piece of the funding plan, in addition to providing leverage, he added.
Bracey said arts and cultural organizations are small, medium, and large businesses that get very nervous when talk of removing revenue sources emerges. That’s particularly true in this case when the administration has yet to release a formal written plan they can rally against, he said.
“If pen actually gets put to paper and this comes out as a ‘for real’ action, we will have a much more in-depth discussion,” Bracey said.