May 2017

Photograph by Jerry Atnip

WORDS JenniferCole, ExecutiveDirector, MetroNashvilleArtsCommission

What do an after-school theatre program in Edgehill serving low-income African American students, an urban sculpture park in a public housing development, a new ballet based on the Persian story of Layla, and the Southern Festival of Books all have in common? They were all catalyzed in some way by an investment from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Since its inception fifty years ago, the NEA has sought to strengthen the creative capacity of communities by providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation. Despite this unwavering cultural vision, it has faced numerous attempts to eliminate or weaken it over the years.

President Trump’s 2018 proposed federal budget seeks to eliminate all funds for the NEA, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute for Museum and Library Sciences, and all cultural projects at the Department of State, including most cultural exchanges and scholarship programs. No administration has ever proposed such sweeping cultural elimination. As I talk with citizens and lawmakers local and national about this proposed action, I continue to confront a series of assumptions about federal arts and humanities funding that I find are ubiquitous. As people who love and treasure the arts, we can re-post a million New York Times tweets and Los Angeles Times op-eds, but the most important thing we can do collectively is to seek to understand these points of view and counter them with data and truth so we can make a thoughtful and effective defense of the arts in America.

Sheri Warner Hunter’s The Gathering at Edmondson Park | Photograph courtesy of MNAC

The arts are only for “certain people” and others shouldn’t subsidize programs for the wealthy.

This is the chorus I hear constantly as I seek to defend our public investments at Metro Arts. It is perhaps the most frustrating argument, because daily I work to ensure that every resident in our city has access to the arts and so does the NEA.

The National Endowment for the Arts supports programs in every Congressional District in the U.S. and its territories. In 2016, more than 20 million Americans connected to over 33,000 exhibits, concerts, and events.

In Tennessee, the largest investment from the NEA goes to the Tennessee Arts Commission, which in turn re-grants those dollars in rural communities and to grassroots arts organizations who have less access to capital for cultural programs.

Nashville Ballet’s Layla & The Majnun; Photograph by Heather Thorne

In Nashville, 100 percent of the grants issued by the NEA in the last year were for creation of new educational works for the public such as operas, ballets, Shakespeare performances, or local artist development programs with required outcomes for broad and diverse citizen participation.

Simply, the elimination of federal investment would disproportionally affect rural, low income, and communities of color who do not have broad donor bases or support systems for cultural investment, and so the funding really is for all people, not “certain people.”

If artists can’t make it as a business, why should we support them?

First and foremost, outside of a very few literary fellowships, the NEA does not fund artists directly. Artists who receive money do so through proposals from organizations like the Nashville Children’s Theatre or the Oasis Center. In other words, a local glass blower or actor isn’t being funded by the NEA.

What the NEA, NEH, and IMLS are funding are institutions who employ millions of our working artists. Those collective businesses and the production of arts and cultural goods have added more than $704 billion to the U.S. economy. This amounts to 4.23 percent of GDP. The arts and cultural sector contributes more to the national economy than the construction, agriculture, mining, utilities, and travel and tourism industries. (Source: National Endowment for the Arts, U.S. Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account Issue Brief #1: Overview of Arts and Cultural Production, 2016.)

In Nashville, data emerging from our Arts and Prosperity V Study with Americans for the Arts (that will be final in June) suggests that every dollar spent at a local cultural institution nets more than $28 in ancillary money spent in our economy on food, parking, and other services. So investment in artists through cultural organizations actually delivers a double bottom line—cultural and economic vibrancy.

So arts and culture are “making it as a business” and contributing not only quality of life and joy to our lives, but significantly driving our national economy. So as we bemoan the issues in manufacturing or energy, it is important to remember that, regardless of geography, investments in arts have ripple effects beyond the stage and gallery and are central to any successful national strategy for growth and prosperity for all Americans.

Southern Festival of Books; Photograph by Melody Barnes

Beyond those artists working for cultural organizations, millions of artists’ work never touches the NEA portfolio but is critical to local economies. This includes self-employed photographers, writers, and craft artisans working direct to consumer and within the local small-business marketplaces. Outside of the proposed “culture cuts” the FY18 federal budget seeks to cut the Small Business Administration and eliminate the Legal Services Corporation, Community Development Financial Institutions, and Consumer Protection Bureau—all of which provide business assistance, financial empowerment programs, and lending capital to micro-businesses like artists.

It will continue to be hard to “make it as a business” if there are large disruptions to the small-business ecosystem in which self-employed artists make and create alongside other entrepreneurs like your local florist, plumber, or coffee shop.

The government has no role in the arts.

This is the one that makes me put my head down on the table and take a deep breath. Government exists to support the safety and quality of life for citizens. Our citizens have always created. First Nations have long traditions of dance, textiles, craft, and song. Enslaved Africans came to this country and brought with them traditions of story, song, dance, and craft. Legions of immigrants from Asia to Ukraine to Ireland brought with them design and cultural traditions that have shaped the America we are and the America we are becoming. These traditions and ideas of “Us” are central to our collective identity as Americans. Our diverse traditions, our deep belief in individualism, creativity, and the right to make a living are worth investing in and protecting. Public investment in the arts indicates a value for this and signals that we as people respect and honor the role that artists play in our communities as culture bearers in the complicated, beautiful country that we all love.

These are the arguments I wake up with and go to bed with. It is my chorus. Because I believe if this cultural erasure comes to pass, we will feel it profoundly in our communities, our neighborhoods, and most distressingly, in our souls.

Next month, I will share more about how the proposed investment changes may affect the Nashville region.

For information on the Jobs, Economic and Other Benefits of the National Endowment, please visit the Americans for the Arts Mobilization Center.

For daily updates on the status of proposed arts changes in federal legislation, join (free) the Arts Action Fund

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