NEA funding fight is also a fight about jobs, arts groups say

A February 2013 performance at the Louisville Orchestra in Louisville, Kentucky. The orchestra received $15,000 in funding from the NEA in 2016. Photo: Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images

In a hallway outside their congressman's office on Capitol Hill, eight of Louisville, Kentucky's top art leaders huddled Tuesday to figure out a plan. Representatives from the arts community descend every year on Washington, D.C., to lobby for arts funding. But this year was different.

Congress has questioned the value of the National Endowment for the Arts since its inception 52 years ago, and conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation have long called the NEA "little more than a direct subsidy to the cultured, upper-middle class." Now, in his proposed budget, President Donald Trump suggested defunding the endowment, along with other cultural groups, entirely. "The federal government should not be in the business of funding the arts," the Republican Study Committee echoed in its own budget report.

A record number of cultural leaders — some 700 — gathered this week in the nation's capital to fight to keep their funding. From Kentucky, more than 20 arts advocates showed up to crowd congressional offices, including the heads of major Louisville institutions like the Louisville Orchestra, the Actors Theatre of Louisville, the city's Fund for the Arts and the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, known as KMAC. For years, many of these institutions have received and relied on NEA funding, or funding from the state's Kentucky Arts Council, which distributes NEA grants.

This year, the Kentucky arts leaders decided they needed a different strategy. They would not lobby for art for art's sake. Trump has pledged to boost coal, manufacturing and infrastructure as a way to create more employment opportunities. But arts has already done that in their state, they said. They would argue that funding the arts was really about jobs, and economic development, especially in a state where the unemployment rate has gone down but remains higher than the national average. They would argue that the arts were not just for city folk, but rural people too. They would say that the NEA was not a waste of public funds, nor did it fund bizarre or controversial art; it funded real people.

"We're here fighting on behalf of the whole state," J.P. Davis, senior vice president of the Fund for the Arts, said as the group prepared to head into its first lobbying meeting."The NEA is not about New York or D.C.," agreed Kevin E. Moore, who runs the Actors Theatre of Louisville. "It is really about the hinterlands of America," he said, because, if NEA funding was cut, it would not kill big groups like his, but small and rural arts groups, some of whom might close their doors altogether.

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Their first stop: the office of Rep. John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat who has a reputation for being friendly to the arts. Still, the arts groups wanted to make sure they had his support, since Yarmuth was a ranking member on the House Budget Committee.

"I am a [University of Kentucky] grad student, and a single mom, and I volunteer for a lot of these arts organizations," Candace Weber told the congressman, pushing back against a recent comment by White House budget director Nick Mulvaney that questioned whether a "single mother of two in Detroit" would really want to fund programs like the NEA.

Trump has pledged to boost coal, manufacturing and infrastructure as a way to create more employment opportunities. But the arts have already done that in Kentucky, groups there say.

Actually, she said, a single mom like her appreciated that her 11-year-old daughter was able to take a school trip to the orchestra, where they played both the classics and a tribute to Harry Potter.

"You historically have been very supportive," Weber told Yarmuth. "Now it's even more important."

Yarmuth nodded; he said he understood. Aldy Milliken, who runs the KMAC Museum, then steered the conversation toward jobs.

"A lot [of arts funding] goes to underserved communities in our state," he said, wearing a hat that said "Grow KY Arts" along with his suit. It also goes "to other jobs besides coal jobs, which are dwindling."

In Kentucky, the availability of coal jobs is at its lowest level in 118 years, according to a recent report from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, which said employment in the industry is at just 6,900. Arts, they argued, had created 108,000 jobs in the state, citing numbers from the Kentucky Arts Council.

"I'd use those numbers," Yarmuth told the group as it prepared to meet with conservative members of Congress.

The next stop was the office Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, who as majority leader is the most powerful Republican in Congress. McConnell has not said how he feels about eliminating NEA funding, and his office declined to comment on this to the NewsHour. But the Americans for the Arts give him an "F" report card for his record on supporting the arts. For this meeting, the Kentucky art leaders knew they'd have to get creative.

READ MORE: Why small and rural arts groups may hurt the most under Trump's plan to gut the NEA

Avoiding the art their institutions created, they instead told a McConnell staffer about NEA funding for art therapy for veterans; one KU student said the program had helped her veteran grandfather. And, taking Yarmuth's advice, they talked about jobs; according to their numbers, Kentucky now had 6,338 arts-related businesses, and employed some 24,000 people.

Though they received no promises at the meeting, Davis, whose organization is the the oldest united arts fund in the country, "felt really good about it." He said he felt better knowing they argued the arts were about more than the arts — that they were also about the state's education, health and economic development. That afternoon, they had more meetings planned with their state's conservative lawmakers.

As they walked back across the lawn of Capitol Hill, Milliken said he kept thinking how important it was that people understood where NEA money went.

In 2016, the NEA's budget was nearly $148 million, which makes up .012 percent of federal discretionary spending. That budget has shrunk about $20 million in the last six years; it is now at the same level it was two decades ago.

"But this is not the NEA of the 90s, which funded the Andres Serrano pissmaking art," Milliken said, in reference to a famous photograph of a urine-submerged crucifix that the NEA had once controversially helped sponsor.

"The money is not going to artists, but to organizations," he said. Organizations like his museum — and arts groups all across the state. "And it's making Kentucky a more creative, dynamic place."

Editors note:
The PBS NewsHour receives some funding from a grant provided by the NEA.

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