What Is It? What Does It Do? Why Do We Need It?
WORDS Jennifer Cole; Executive Director, Metro Nashville Arts Commission
Last month we explored common misconceptions about the role of federal funding in the arts. This month we will explore what impact elimination of NEA and other federal cultural funding might have on the local arts ecosystem.
The FY17 budget of the NEA is $151 million dollars or .47 cents per taxpayer, the equivalent of a rounding error in a multi-trillion dollar budget. The combined cultural spend throughout the federal government adding cultural programs from Interior, State, and the independent agencies like NEA and NEH is about five dollars per taxpayer, per year. In other words, the federal government is currently investing the equivalent of a large pumpkin spice latte in arts and culture nationwide.
The convenient argument is to posit that if it is so little already, no one will really miss it. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Federal funding for the arts drives local innovation.
Mayors and city leaders compete constantly to attract and retain the best and brightest talent. Time after time, research bears out that the creative cities, those that invest in a wide variety of arts and culture offerings, also tend to attract and retain the critical technology, manufacturing, and corporate innovators cities need to thrive.
In the tech sector, you have venture capital structures to support innovation and growth; in science, the National Institutes of Health. In the arts, we have the National Endowment. Last year in Nashville, NEA awarded grants to support the Ingram New Works play festival, an adaptation of Laurie Brooks’s Afflicted: Daughters of Salem into a new play for young audiences at Nashville Children’s Theatre, a new recording of composer John Harbison’s Requiem with the Nashville Symphony, a new opera Maria de Buenos Aires with Nashville Opera. Each of these investments helped these organizations generate new work that excites new audiences and adds to their capacity to generate revenue.
Perhaps more important, these new “cultural products” are sought after by other artistic leaders to replicate on their stages. In a way, NEA investments often serve as a sort of risk capital for arts organizations in Nashville. Most run so close to the margin with their season or exhibits that doing something new and artistically bold must be balanced with the reality of keeping the doors open and the lights on.
Because NEA grants are nationally competitive it drives our local applicant organizations to push their creative limits and really take bold risks. These risks often result in excellent new content and global accolades and opportunity for our artists and organizations. Past NEA investments have resulted in Grammy nominations for Alias Chamber Ensemble, the Nashville Opera, and the Nashville Symphony. And just last month, Paul Vasterling and the Nashville Ballet made their debut at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts with The Ben Folds Project, a music and choreography collaboration funded in part through investment from the NEA. At Metro Arts, our Learning Lab artist training program has quickly become a national model, and we are in discussion with numerous cities about replication. Empowering our creative sector to be bold and edgy reinforces our brand as a global, cultural city. This allows our mayor and governor to attract large employers who see our diversity and cultural leadership as a requirement for a pro-business climate. Without the NEA and their targeted investments, our artistic leaders will have less incentive to take risks, and our audiences and ultimately our overall city innovation climate will suffer.
Federal funding for the arts ensures that the arts remain equitable and for all people.
According to the 2010 “Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy” report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, just 11 percent of all U.S. private philanthropy goes to the arts, some 2.3 billion dollars.
Of that, more than half of the dollars support just 2 percent of the entire sector—mostly the largest, best known, and most endowed institutions, those like the Met, the L.A. Philharmonic, and the Getty.
This means, in general, that the arts sector receives one of the smallest slices of U.S. philanthropy and that, of dollars flowing into the arts world, the vast majority flows to mega institutions, those with budgets over 50 million dollars, generally located in large cities.
The National Endowment for the Arts since the 1980s has sought to be populist, supporting arts programs in every Congressional District in the U.S. and art forms that are traditionally under-invested in through private philanthropy. This approach widens the tent in most arts ecosystems, and Nashville is no different.
Nashville is lucky to have a longstanding arts philanthropy legacy that has given us many of our treasured institutions from TPAC to the Frist Center and the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. Leaders like Martha Ingram, Steve and Judy Turner, and the Frist family continue to ensure we have world-class cultural treasures through long-term investments and endowments.
Our local private philanthropy sector is smaller than many of our peer cities’, meaning we simply have fewer foundations—family and corporate per capita—than cities like Charlotte, Boston, or Portland.
However, the region is home to 150+ arts and cultural organizations. As the demographics of our community change, it is increasingly important to invest in our long-standing arts organizations as well as those emergent grassroots or culture-specific organizations that showcase our racial, religious, and class diversity through the arts. Additionally, many non-arts organizations are taking the lead in offering arts education and programs to our most under-invested civic populations. Public funding is often vital to these smaller organizations as they build their audience and outreach or seek to serve a community that is limited in its ability to financially support the cultural organization.
A flourishing arts ecosystem includes the Nashville Symphony and Intersection; the Nashville Rep and the Tennessee Women’s Theater Project; the Frist Center and Seed Space; TPAC and Music for Seniors; the Ballet and the Chinese American Cultural Alliance.
Availability of public funds for small organizations, arts education, and access makes our community more equitable and vibrant. Artistic excellence and cultural equity are not mutually exclusive, and federal leadership by the National Endowment holds up both as values and critical areas of investment. Metro Arts is deeply committed to equity, innovation, and most of all the role of artists in our community. We believe continued investment in federal arts funding reinforces what our songwriters, dancers, potters, and makers do every day in our city. We will continue our work locally, driving these values and hoping we can do so with the National Endowment for the Arts in years to come.