Will vaunted arts organizations perish after their federal funding expires?

Art Attack

Written by Ashley M. Biggers Category: Valley News Issue: September 2017
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Arts Projects 

Arizona Commission on the Arts initiatives:
• AZ Creative Aging: Provides training for artists, arts organizations and healthcare providers on developing arts programs for the elderly.
• Poetry Out Loud: Think a spelling bee, but with poetry. It engages 10,000-15,000 
students in tournament-style poetry recitation. 

Arizona Humanities projects:
• FRANKTalks: Free, expert-facilitated discussions on issues facing the state, including educational equality, immigrants and the American Dream, and religious liberty, to name a few. 
• Water/Ways: A Smithsonian traveling exhibition that will visit 12 smaller Arizona communities in 2018.
Create/Change: AZ, an Arizona Commission on the Arts program, aims to transform elder care through creative engagement. Photo by Alonso Parra, Lamp Left Media.

When President Donald Trump released his proposed budget in March, funding for two legacy agencies was missing: the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, which together receive .002 percent of the federal budget and whose funding could cease September 30 at the end of the federal fiscal year. That trickles down to Valley agencies Arizona Humanities and the Arizona Commission on the Arts, who this summer may have issued their last grants.

The NEH and NEA have surfed the mercurial tides of funding for years, but AH executive director Brenda Thomson says there’s something singular afoot. “Cuts since 2010 have been large. Anything between 3 and 5 percent has been the starting point for negotiations in the past,” she says. “What’s unusual here is the proposed elimination of the agencies. The negotiation is not atypical, only the tenor of the conversation is.” 

Arts funding has been on the decline. NEA funding is 14 percent lower than it was in 2010. NEH funding has similarly decreased. Thomson attributes the cuts to the Great Recession, during which the Arizona Commission on the Arts lost 60 to 70 percent of its state funding, including a general fund allocation eliminated in 2012. When the recession waned, commission executive director Jaime Dempsey says legislators on both sides of the aisle wanted to invest in the creative sector. They turned rainy-day fund interest into a one-time allocation that helps Arizonans experience the arts, from supporting the state’s poet laureate to funding children’s theater. It’s unicorn funding – appearing some years and not others. This year, the commission received $1.5 million. “Other agencies have funding streams where you have to take action to take it away; ours requires action to make [it] happen,” Dempsey says. State funding won’t fill the federal funding gap, nor will other sources, according to the local agencies.

The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C., based conservative think tank that blueprinted the Trump administration’s budget, supports NEA and NEH funding cuts. It argues the arts have plenty of support and that arts agencies should look beyond the federal government to philanthropic, corporate and private funding.

Thomson says funding elimination would cripple AH, whose aim is to foster civil society through statewide programs such as author talks and film screenings. “We try to diversify funding sources. We’ve been doing that since the recession, but it’s a slow growth. We don’t get windfalls to make up $750,000.”

Dempsey says that while major institutions like the Phoenix Art Museum and Phoenix Symphony, may struggle, the funding elimination will disproportionately affect organizations with fewer resources. “In small and rural communities, the NEA is the only game in town,” she says. The agency has an imperative to spread funding across every part of the state; the same is true of the NEH and AH (see sidebar). With less corporate support, it’s an uphill battle. “We have seen a decline in corporate entities that support arts and culture. They’re focusing on other critical issues” like health and education, she says.

Research shows arts and humanities programs are wrapped up in the economy, and not just as beneficiaries of a healthy one. In June, nonprofit Americans for the Arts released its fifth study on the industry’s economic impact, which showed that during the height of the recession in 2010 in Phoenix, the arts supported 12,815 full-time jobs, generated more than $285 million in household income, and generated more than $19 million in local government revenue.

“Anecdotally, we’re seeing that in their top three factors [in where to locate a business] is that companies want a vibrant arts and culture community... Growing the economy here has a lot to do with the vibrancy and stability of the arts,” Dempsey says. “In America our true innovative power is our capacity to create. It’s time to double and triple down on that rather than cut it back.”

Both organizations say they’ve seen overwhelming support at public events and via social media and letter-writing campaigns, but whether that affects the negotiations has yet to play out.