It’s easy to think of the arts and culture as extraneous. Certainly many North Carolina state legislators do. But that is terribly shortsighted. Over the last several years, relentless funding reductions have already significantly damaged the museums, historic sites and agencies that preserve the state’s heritage, sustain its cultural health, drive tourism and make this state a desirable place to live. Further reductions are under consideration.
The idea that culture is unessential, a luxury for flush times, is at odds with our own best traditions. While the earliest museums were showcases for the rich – no riffraff allowed – in 19th century America culture began to be seen as a public right. The dazzling world’s fairs and the new public museums of the era suggested that the whole world could be brought to the doorsteps of ordinary people.
During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress didn’t cut back on culture but rather invested in it, seeing it as both an economic boost and a source of strength for the country. The U.S. government hired musicians, writers, folklorists and artists to create recordings, guidebooks, archives and post office murals that we enjoy to this day.
In the 1960s, when voting rights were finally granted to all, the promise extended to culture: the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts were founded so that everyone could enjoy art, music and history. North Carolina’s Department of Cultural Resources and the state’s Humanities Council, both founded in the early 1970s, emerged from this vision.
The recent cuts to funding for history and the arts, then, are not just trimming elite leisure-time activities; they are attacking the very notion of us as a public – the idea that we have a shared stake in creating citizens who are invited to look within and beyond themselves, to understand where we have been and where we are going.
The damage done of late in North Carolina is real. The already lean budget for the Department of Cultural Resources has been reduced by nearly 25 percent since 2009. Cultural leaders have had to fend off threats to close new or recently revitalized institutions such as the Museum of Albemarle in Elizabeth City and Tryon Palace in New Bern. The flagship N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh took two decades of fundraising to open a new exhibition chronicling the state’s history in 2011 only to face cuts of nearly a million dollars in the last two years.
Most drastic of all, perhaps, has been the damage to the state’s network of over two dozen historic sites, the places where visitors come to realize that, indeed, history happened here.
Public hours have been reduced, professional positions frozen, maintenance and preservation deferred. Some sites don’t have sufficient fuel or staff to cut the grass regularly.
It wouldn’t take much to fix these problems. The amount appropriated to the Department of Cultural Resources – less than $61 million – is three tenths of 1percent of the state’s $20.2 billion budget for 2012-13. A mere $6.30 per person per year supports 27 historic sites; seven history museums; the State Library, the State Archives; the state divisions of Historical Publications, Archaeology, Genealogy, and Historic Preservation; the N.C. Symphony; the N.C. Arts Council; and the N.C. Museum of Art.
Unfortunately, we seem to be headed in the wrong direction. The General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division is studying the possibility of consolidating management at state historic sites, reducing open hours, introducing or raising admission fees and transferring operations to outside nonprofit groups. Sites under the gun include Bennett Place, Duke Homestead, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, Historic Stagville and Historic Edenton. The Program Evaluation Division report, due in December, looms as an excuse for the legislature to further scale back its commitment to public culture in the name of “efficiency.”
We must challenge the assumption that cutting cultural institutions is the solution to our budget difficulties. Instead, we should be investing in them. The fact is that culture is a significant driver of the state’s economic health. The 2011 N.C. Visitor Profile, compiled by the Department of Commerce, reports that 40 percent of travelers’ time is spent on cultural activities. Within the state, cultural institutions are sources of employment for thousands.
Most fundamentally, though, the arts and culture sustain our sense of who we are individually and collectively – of where we came from as a people and our sense of possibility for what we might yet become. These are not luxuries but essential to our past, present and future. Let’s hope that in the months to come, North Carolinians speak up loudly and often and convince state legislators that these essential public institutions are worth the small investment needed to save them.
Benjamin Filene is director of public history and an associate professor at UNC Greensboro.