It’s a prospect that strikes fear into the hearts of arts presenters from coast to coast: the federal government abolishing the National Endowment for the Arts.
It could happen, too. President Donald Trump’s proposed “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again” for 2018 doesn’t just cut the NEA’s annual budget of $146 million, it eliminates the NEA entirely. Also on the chopping block are the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
In a March 16 television interview, White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney rhetorically asked if the federal government could “continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs.” His answer was no.
“We can ask them to pay for defense, and we will, but we can’t ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting,” Mulvaney said. It’s a death sentence that applies to the NEA and the NEH as well.
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Formed in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” wave of domestic programs, the NEA is an independent federal agency that funds artistically significant projects across the country. While its $146 million budget sounds like a lot of money, it’s a tiny sliver of the $3.65 trillion the country spent last year.
Nevertheless, NEA grants represent money that groups in the Triangle have come to depend on, for education as well as performances. United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County is using its $20,000 in NEA money to fund the “Arts Integration Institute” professional development program for elementary-school teachers.
Durham’s American Dance Festival, for example, has an overall annual budget of around $3.5 million, which includes $70,000 from the NEA. Only about 2 percent of the festival’s budget comes from the NEA, but it’s money that helps fund education and outreach activities by visiting artists as well as more adventurous, less commercial programming.
“Losing the NEA would absolutely hurt us,” said ADF executive director Jodee Nimerichter. “We would have to re-evaluate our performance season, probably cut performances and commissions. It would definitely be felt, if it comes to pass.”
How much N.C. gets
In terms of per capita funding received, North Carolina actually ranks near the bottom in NEA dollars, ahead of only Texas and Florida. The NEA is awarding a bit more than $1.7 million in total grants to North Carolina organizations for the period including 2016 and 2017.
The money supports a wide range of programming, from Charlotte Ballet’s world premiere of choreographer Sasha Janes’ “Wuthering Heights” ($10,000) to visual artist Nina Chanel Abney’s “Royal Flush” exhibit at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art ($60,000).
NEA money also pays for artistic events beyond what audiences see onstage. Sharon Moore is director of NC State’s LIVE series, which gets support from NEA-funded organizations like Atlanta-based South Arts and uses the money to pay for teaching and community-engagement programs for visiting artists.
“Those are a huge part of what makes an impact,” Moore said. “There’s revenue potential from performances, but not from putting artists in local middle schools or with the theater department or the Africana studies program. And that’s the impact that makes the biggest difference.”
The North Carolina Arts Council gets the state’s biggest share of NEA funding, more than $957,000, which it parcels out to different projects across the state. While NEA money only represents about 10 percent of the arts council’s overall budget, that money has helped fund high-profile projects including the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in Wilson and the Blue Ridge Heritage Trail.
“These have been important initiatives, started and sustained,” said Wayne Martin, executive director of the arts council. “They’ve been good for business, too. The Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park ignited downtown revitalization that attracted a lot of private money there. But there seems to be this notion in Washington that less government is always the best scenario. So they want to get government out of as many different areas as possible.”
In its half-century of existence, the NEA has had an intermittently uneasy relationship with the federal government. Controversy flared in the late 1980s over provocative NEA-funded art by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, after which the late North Carolina Sen. Jesse A. Helms sought to impose restrictions for artistic works he deemed “obscene or indecent.” As a result, the NEA no longer gives grants directly to individuals, though the organizations it supports can fund individual writers or artists through fellowships and grants.
Onstage at Durham’s Motorco Music Hall Sunday night, the North Carolina-born folksinger Loudon Wainwright III recalled that controversy and its ongoing relevance when he performed his 1989 song “Jesse Don’t Like It”:
If Jesse thinks it’s dirty it don’t get any funds
They use that taxpayer money on tobacco and guns
Your freedom of expression is being denied
But if you’re not sure what you like then just let Jesse decide…
A number of moderate Republican senators have come out in support of the NEA during the current imbroglio, but hostility toward government support of the arts remains very much alive – from those who think government money and approval taints the artists who seek it, and from fiscal conservatives who believe that private funding should support the arts rather than government funding. After the Trump budget was released, Washington Post columnist George Will put forth the latter viewpoint with a column headlined, “Abolish the National Endowment for the Arts.”
One person who raised his voice in protest was Emil J. Kang, executive director of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carolina Performing Arts, in a widely read open letter he published on social media.
“There’s this user-pay idea that those engaged with arts should be the ones to support it,” said Kang (who says he’s speaking as a concerned citizen, not in his official capacity at UNC or on the National Council on the Arts). “The data shows that most philanthropy is directed toward major cities and institutions. What the NEA does is support smaller groups, where a $30,000 grant means a lot more than it would in New York. The real impact of this will hit harder in smaller communities and organizations.”
There is an economic-development angle to this as well. The Triangle consistently ranks near the top of places-rated guides, and a big reason why people are moving here in droves is its cultural life.
“Someone told me once about a friend thinking about relocating from the Northeast to the South,” said Aaron Greenwald, executive director of Duke Performances. “Every Southeastern city, from Nashville to Asheville to Durham to Richmond, had its appeal. But one big appeal of the Triangle was its unusual quantity of world-class cultural offerings, especially given the size of the metro area. I’ve always had this thought that if the NEA ever gets zeroed out by someone like Trump, private foundations might step into the breach. But even if they do, they’ll have to reassemble a delivery vehicle that’s as efficient as the NEA is.”
▪ American Dance Festival (Durham): $70,000
▪ Appalachian State University (Boone): $20,000 for folk and traditional arts programs
▪ Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation: $15,000 for Blue Ridge Music Center’s Roots of American Music concert series
▪ Brevard Music Center: $10,000 to premiere the opera “Falling Angel”
▪ Cape Fear Regional Theatre (Fayetteville): $15,000 for staging of “Caroline, or Change”
▪ Carolina Ballet (Raleigh): $10,000 for presentation of “Carmen”
▪ Center for Documentary Studies (Durham): $30,000 for Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
▪ Charlotte Ballet: $10,000 for world premiere of “Wuthering Heights”
▪ Cucalorus Film Foundation (Wilmington): $20,000
▪ Duke University (Durham): $50,000 for hip-hop music and dance; $18,000 for research on El Sistema USA; $60,000 for Nasher Museum of Art’s “Nana Chanel Abney: Royal Flush” exhibit
▪ Durham Arts Council: $100,000 to support arts-driven Downtown Durham SmART Corridor Initative
▪ Elsewhere (Greensboro): $40,000 for residency/fellowship program
▪ Jean Godfrey (Black Mountain): $25,000 creative-writing fellowship
▪ LEAF Community Arts (Black Mountain): $12,500 for LEAF Festival
▪ Mint Museum of Art (Charlotte): $30,000 for teen-education program
▪ Music Maker Relief Foundation (Hillsborough): $15,000 for performances to accompany “A Living Past: Music Maker Tintypes” project
▪ North Carolina Arts Council (Raleigh): $957,300 for partnership activities
▪ North Carolina Folklife Institute (Durham): $25,000 for education programs
▪ North Carolina Opera (Raleigh): $10,000 for production of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro”
▪ North Carolina Symphony (Raleigh): $10,000 for project commemorating the state’s World War I history
▪ Obey Foundation (Charlotte): $20,000 for Drums 4 Life program
▪ Penland School of Crafts: $30,000 for residency program
▪ STARworks Center for Creative Enterprise (Star): $15,000 for public-art exhibition; $50,000 for NC Woodfire! Fest
▪ UNC-Charlotte: $10,000 for program based on Paul Taylor’s “Lost Tracer”
▪ UNC-Wilmington: $10,000 to publish the literary journal Ecotone
▪ United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County: $20,000 for Arts Integration Institute development program