Throwback Thursday – KCAC Forum Fall 1997

KCAC Forum Magazine Fall 1997

by Angee Kerrigan

Consider how many times a week you put 50 cents into a vending machine or a parking meter.

For less than 50 cents a year actually less than 38 cents your investment to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) makes possible any and all of the following: symphonies and chamber music; children’s festivals; operas; book festivals and poetry readings; concerts in the parks; Jazz festivals; puppetry theaters; local Shakespeare festivals; community planning; folk festivals; artists in schools, museum and gallery exhibitions, literacy programs; mobile art galleries; children’s museums; Fourth of July festivals; at-risk-youth projects; historic renovations; and downtown revitalization.

Since its inception in 1965, the NEA has focused on making the the arts accessible to people of all ages ethnicity, classes, and religious backgrounds. It has worked to bring cultural literacy to schools, opportunities to artists, and artistic scope to the American public. Even with the threat of the loss of federal funding it strives to persevere to support cultural outlets.

The NEA puts a great emphasis on education, and justifiably so. Through artistic expression, students are inspired to hone problem-solving, reasoning, speaking and writing skills. Through the arts, students become disciplined and motivated. Simply stated, the arts imbue solid work ethics and work performance. The NEA has long recognized how significant a stimulus art is to students. And so they have embedded their organization into educational and have been instrumental in reform initiatives that seek to make arts an integral part of schools’ curriculum. Without the financial and personal support of the NEA, many programs that provide cultural education to school children, including ‘at-risk’ youth, would fail – or would not exist at all.

If supplying cultural literacy to youth is not enough to justify the National Endowment for the Arts, there are other dividends offered to our communities. The arts spur business growth, encourage urban renewal, and contribute to the economic vitality of cities and towns. The arts generate approximately $37 billion in economic activity and return $3.4 billion in federal income taxes to the U.S. Treasury each year. It also means jobs for American citizens, more than 1.7 million Americans are employed in the not-for-profit arts industry.

Beyond economic rewards, the arts bring cultural harmony to areas. There are no boundaries when it comes to artistic expression. Americans share their diverse cultures with one another by visiting areas with strong artistic communities or by welcoming visitors into their own communities. The number of arts organizations has risen dramatically since the founding of the NEA: the number of symphony orchestras has quadrupled, dance companies have increased from 37 to more than 250 today, there are nearly eight times as many theaters.

This growth, in turn, promotes tourism, and encourages communities to preserve their local heritages. It also invites artists to travel outside their communities. For instance, with the assistance of NEA grants a theater group can travel to a rural area where theater may not be available bringing people of different backgrounds together through the arts.

Where are the roots of the fine arts that spur such excitement and growth in our schools and communities? They are within the creators. Even though only 5 percent of the NEA annual budget goes to individuals, past recipients have commented on how the NEA encourages them to continue their work and, in some cases, helps validate their careers. Many artists who went on to receive Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, MacArthur “genius” awards, Academy Awards, Emmys, Tonys and other prestigious national honors were supported at crucial points in their artistic lives by the Endowment. The costs of producing quality art is rising, making the necessity of public patronage all the more dramatic.

Perhaps this all seems a bit egocentric. Those who advocate the NEA take the threat of eliminating it quite personally. Where exactly would we be without the NEA? First of all, arts could become inaccessible to the average American. Quite possibly, we could be without many of the previously mentioned programs, exhibits and great artists. Students will be discouraged to continue an education directed toward a career in the arts without venues and avenues in which to direct their efforts. And communities might be less driven to preserve their cultural heritage or promote present cultural influences.

Now why should we be turning to the federal government for support? The presumption that private corporate, and state funding will supplant the loss of federal funding is not likely. Already, NEA funds are used as the starting point for fundraising. The leveraging of dollar-for-dollar matches stimulates private giving. Arts organizations never cease their fundraising efforts, even with grant money. There are constant budget battles and deficit concerns, There is a need for the federal government to play the role of instigator.

However, there are other reasons for federal involvement. Preserving our cultural heritage is a matter of national prestige. The NEA supports projects that have the potential to serve the whole nation. The design competition that led to the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the annual Fourth of July concert on Washington’s Mall, and the National Heritage Fellowships were all partially supported by the NEA. The Endowment has also forged federal alliances with the U.S. Department of Commerce in the promotion of cultural tourism, the Department of Justice on crime prevention initiatives, the Department of Transportation to promote design excellence within the nation’s transportation systems, and with the National Service Corporation for an anti-illiteracy project.

Despite all it does for education, artists and communities, the House of Representatives still fails to recognize the worthiness of the NEA. And even though appropriated funding came through in the Senate, the fear of losing federal funding is still quite warranted after last session. At a hearing of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, the House marked the bill as H.R. 2107 and Subcommittee Chair Ralph Regula (R-OH) recommended “an appropriation of $10 million dollars for an orderly termination” of the agency. Twice the proposal for an amendment to increase the FY 98 appropriation to $99.5 on was defeated. After a point of order that the $10 million provided for the NEA in the bill was a violation of House rules, final consideration of H.R. 2107 was made. On July 15, the bill containing zero dollars for the NEA passed by a 238-192 vote.

Following the House action, the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee considered its version of H.R. 2107. And two days later on July 17, it provided $100.06 million (the current FY97 amount plus a small addition for inflation) for the agency.

Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), chairman of the full Appropriations Committee, established a task force to explore new ways in which a bipartisan agreement could be reached with the House on continued funding for the NEA.

Even with Senate backing, the NEA still stands on shaky ground and continues to fight to sustain its position as life support to the nation’s arts. Congress insightfully noted when creating the NEA that “An advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future.”

That statement held true in 1965, and it remains clear-sighted and perceptive. Consider the consequences of a student without cultural education, a downtrodden artist, or a community without festivals and museums, then contact your representatives and remind them of the importance of the NEA. Ask them to “have a better view” of our future.