“People don’t often think of it this way, but artists fight wars too,” says Mike Nourse, director of education at the Hyde Park Arts Center in Chicago. “The war is a different one. It’s a local one. It’s an internal war, but it might be the most important war we have going on right now.”
The war that Nourse is talking about is one organizations all across the country are preparing to fight. In Chicago, a big, multicultural city that is frequently at the center of a number of conversations involving gun violence and corruption, organizations like Nourse’s are a vital part of the communities they serve, helping to bridge divides and cultivate and support the culture that make cities so unique. In smaller towns all across the country, however, the very existence of government-funded arts and culture programs are being threatened.
Last Thursday, President Trump released his proposed federal budget, and the arts and humanities, among other social needs programs, appear to be at severe risk. The cuts come under the interest of increases in funding for the Department of Homeland Security, military spending and Trump’s much-hyped “border wall,” a key component of his presidential campaign.
“Consistent with the president’s approach to move the nation toward fiscal responsibility, the budget eliminates and reduces hundreds of programs and focuses funding to redefine the proper role of the federal government,” the proposal says. The “proper role of the federal government” in Trump’s proposed budget cuts includes the elimination of 19 fundamental agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Of course, these proposed cuts are just part of a very big wish list and might not end up happening, but there is still no denying that arts and culture are once again under attack in America.
The NEA, created in 1965 through an act of the U.S. Congress under President Lyndon B. Johnson, receives an annual budget of $146.2 million, and is dedicated to supporting “excellence in the arts” as well as supporting arts education and efforts to bring the arts to all Americans. It has awarded more than 128,000 grants totaling more than $5 billion since its inception. The National Endowment for the Humanities, also created in 1965, is dedicated to research, education and public programs in the humanities at museums, libraries, colleges, public television, radio stations and other entities. Operating under a $148 million annual budget, the NEH also includes 65 humanities councils in the states and U.S. territories.
This would not be the first time both the NEA and the NEH came under fire. In 1981, upon his arrival in office, Ronald Reagan proposed the elimination of both agencies. Later, he proposed reducing the arts endowment by half. Both plans were eventually dropped under the advisement of a special task force (which included celebrities like Charlton Heston and Joseph Coors of the Coors Brewing Company) for the arts and humanities.
The loss of both organizations would cause a ripple effect for thousands of people in every state. Both the NEA and the NEH are the only funders of arts and humanities organizations for all 50 states. It is not hyperbole when cultural commentators and Twitter users say these cuts would “kill Big Bird.” Cultural institutions such as the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which created Sesame Street, and National Public Radio (NPR) receive a bulk of their funding from agencies like the NEA and the NEH.
“We’re not rolling in money, despite what some would say,” Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, says. Her organization is best known for the National Book Awards, the annual awards honoring books by U.S. authors released during the awards year. But the National Book Foundation also creates smaller programs such as Book Up, an after school reading program for middle schoolers in four different cities. Book Up is funded through the NEA. “Literary centers that promote reading are invaluable toward developing and sustaining a nation full of readers,” Lucas says. “In terms of cultivating a country where writers are able to find extraordinarily-needed support to empower time to their writing projects, the NEA is invaluable for that.”
We underestimate how fundamental governmental grants are to the survival of the arts in this country. But for many local organizations, governmental grants serve as the only reliable funding source for programs in the arts.
Illinois Humanities, one of 56 state and territory humanities councils, began sending emails last month urging its supporters to contact their local congressman in anticipation of potential budget cuts. Unlike other organizations that utilize the NEA or NEH for smaller grants, the humanities councils rely on federal funding for a majority of their budgets. A little under half of the budget for Illinois Humanities comes from the national government. The humanities councils serve like smaller branches for the NEH, creating grants for local and rural communities within their state.
One such program grant is for Illinois Speaks, which is, “a community-driven, small group conversation program that seeks to promote discussions within and across communities about issues impacting our lives as a means of strengthening the democratic process.” Illinois Humanities provides “micro grants” for the program. Organizers can apply to be an Illinois Speaks site and use the grant money to rent space or provide refreshments during the discussion. A facilitator is trained by Illinois Humanities to lead the discussion.
Illinois Speaks opens up dialogue among disparate populations, giving citizens a necessary platform to voice their concerns and beliefs. In an increasingly confusing and tense political time, this kind of dialogue is not only beneficial, it is necessary. It is giving voice to the voiceless. Cuts to such programming suggest the smallest of voices don’t matter.
“What that says is we’re not interested in one another. We’re not interested in what someone else sees or feels or thinks or experiences and to me, if that’s the message we’re receiving from the government, that has ripple effects everywhere,” says Jane Beachy, a manager of arts programming at Illinois Humanities. “I think that truly affects everyone, even people who don’t think they participate in the arts or humanities at all, which I would actually defy someone to prove.” Nourse says conversations fuel the programs of the Hyde Park Art Center, too. “It generates meaning that translates into civic discourse. The civic discourse that we participate in, we care about,” Nourse says. “Mentally, it’s a big part of our work.”
Like all major proposed cuts, the populations most affected are also the most vulnerable, the ones who struggle to maintain a visible arts and culture presence in the first place. “Whenever you take away funding, you’re affecting not just a few people. You’re talking about, exponentially, thousands and thousands of people,” says Nourse. “It’s no small topic.”
Before she was the Director of the Chicago Artists Coalition, Caroline Older ran the arts council of Greater Grands Rapids in Michigan for four years. The council was a regranting agency for the state and often re-granted for seven west Michigan counties that did not border the lake or benefit from Lake Michigan tourism. Older calls them “rural farming communities,” and although it wasn’t a huge amount of money (some only have an operating budget of $11,000), the grants went toward programs such as summer programs for kids, arts camps, and even a jazz festival. “These are not enormous productions but they meant so much for these rural communities because it was a big social moment where art brought everyone together.”
In all likelihood, the arts will survive in the country’s major cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, which serve as major hubs for the arts and humanities and utilize both as major tourist draws. But small cities and rural towns cannot say the same. Not every organization is the same. Some, like the Hyde Park Arts Council and the Chicago Artists Coalition will be able to survive because they are less dependent on federal funding. Others like Illinois Humanities are in dire need and will likely require a restructuring of how and where they receive funding. And still others, the big names we’ve come to know and enjoy like PBS may cease to exist all together.
Fighting for dollars from private donors can only go so far and many organizations, removed from the wealthiest hubs of the country, rely on the governmental intervention of arts funding. These proposed cuts essentially draw a line in the sand, suggesting cultivation of the arts and humanities are only necessary for certain Americans in certain parts of the country. And they make a clear and definitive statement that they are seen as neither valuable nor fundamental to the strength and vitality of this country by the Trump administration.
“I certainly don’t think that the NEA and NEH being defunded would in any way stop art from being made or stop the humanities from existing. That’s impossible,” says Beachy. “But what it does is make a value statement that not only impacts people’s bank accounts, but also the way we understand what is valued in our society and the degree to which we feel alienated by those values.”