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Credit: Kela Simpson

Why small and rural arts groups may hurt the most under Trump’s plan to gut the NEA

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, which was released Thursday, eliminates funding for 19 agencies, including for cultural groups like the National Endowment for the Arts. Congress has final approval of the president’s request.

The NEA supports arts groups across the country, including major institutions in big cities, like Carnegie Hall or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. But it would also mean the end of grants for dance, opera, writing, film, theater and other arts organizations in every state in the country — many of them smaller groups in rural communities.

To better understand how the proposed cuts would affect groups — big and small — across the country, we reached out to organizations in five different states — South Carolina, Alabama, Maine, Texas and Kentucky — about what life would look like without funding from NEA. Here’s what they said.

Comments have been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Preserving Our Southern Appalachian Music, Inc. (POSAM) in Pickens, South Carolina
In 2016, POSAM received a $10,000 grant from the NEA to support bluegrass music education for youth and adults. From Executive Director Betty McDaniel:

I’m devastated and heartbroken. This affects us greatly. I didn’t hear about it until this morning, and I called my husband right away. We had just discussed this with the POSAM board, because we had heard that it was being proposed. We figured out that [without] our grants from the NEA and three grants from the South Carolina Arts Commission — which indirectly gets money from the NEA — we would be down 35 percent of our budget.

We currently serve over 300 kids and 100 adults in our rural mountain community. About half of these kids use free or reduced lunch. We work in 11 schools, doing an after school program. And we offer instruction on instruments on a sliding scale. We also do an evening program with kids and adults in four different counties, and a camp in the summer for kids. It’s opportunities for people to come in and listen to and learn traditional music, bluegrass music. We teach four acoustic traditional instruments: guitar, fiddle, banjo and mandolin. We have kids that have gotten on America’s Got Talent, they record music, they come out of our programs and have done well. Now all that’s going to go into the tubes.

I’ve also written grants for the NEA for the Senior Citizens of Pickens, which is a nonprofit that supports the senior center in Pickens. It’s now called the Pickens Community Center, and it has a thriving fiber arts program.

I’m not saying we couldn’t do our work without the NEA, because we’re kind of bull-doggish around here. I’m a volunteer. The entire staff at the community center is volunteer. It’s not like we can cut waste, since nobody is paid. So I don’t know what will happen.

Coleman Center for the Arts in York, Alabama
In 2016, the center received a $25,000 grant to support the center’s visual arts programming. From Director Jackie Clay:

There are actually multiple grants that have affected our community: 21st Century Community Learning, AmeriCorps, the Delta Regional Authority and a Community Development Block Grant, which repaved the streets in York. All of these would be eliminated, in addition to the NEA cuts. This money is pretty critical for us, and throughout the Black Belt, which is in Mississippi and Alabama.

There’s been more of a lens on places like West Virginia and how the coal mining culture has been affected. But there is also a real bottoming out of small industry in our region. It’s interesting that there is even an arts center here to begin with, that the community is still really committed to having the arts here. Part of this is about knowing that while we’re not the most wealthy community, we still deserve a strong education, we deserve jobs, we deserve the arts, we deserve creative investments in our community.

We provide visual arts education in many of the schools. We have a summer camp. Our artist visits are definitely funded by NEA grants. Basically, these cuts eliminate almost all of our funding streams. When we heard the news, my colleague said a few words: outraged, ill, saddened, disappointed. I’m a little more in denial. I think it’s bad for us as an organization, but it also points to a broader question of what a government is supposed to do and who this is supposed to serve.

Points North Institute in Camden, Maine
In 2016, the institute received a $25,000 to support their annual film festival and other activities. From Program Director Sean Flynn:

We’re a media arts institute that supports documentary filmmakers and other media artists. We do the Camden International Film Festival, which been around since 2005. I think our first grant came in around 2013, which really helped the organization and the event mature and reach a wider audience. What we do is serve a group of rural communities on the coast of Maine. We’re bringing documentary films to audiences that wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to engage with them. Even in an age where you can find media on Netflix and YouTube, a lot of that doesn’t reach our audience’s channels.

Without an NEA grant, one thing that becomes harder is paying for artists to come to the festival, where we have this strong local audience interacting with filmmakers from all over the world. This is a unique environment where people are engaging that much more deeply with the storytelling. It feels that much more real. I think this would be a tragedy, especially in smaller communities like ours. In larger cities, larger museums find ways of sustaining their ways through large gifts and foundation sources. NEA is one of the first major national funders that supported our work — because it has a mandate to serve a broad public, and reach all these different corners of America with this support. This is something that removes another rung on the ladder of opportunity.

Youth Orchestras of San Antonio (YOSA) in San Antonio, Texas
In 2016, the youth orchestra received a $10,000 grant to support Mozart at the Opera. From Executive Director Brandon Henson:

We’ve received several “Challenge America” grants from the NEA over the past four years, which have basically allowed us to bring in world class guest artists to do residencies with our orchestras. When we bring in these artists, Challenge America allows the artists to come in and visit schools, and do outreach, performances and clinics, in local, underserved schools. One artist, who has been with us twice, is Zachary Gordin, a baritone singer. Last year, he did a presentation of several Mozart operas. And when he visits schools he’ll sing for students with a pianist to demonstrate what a professional artist does. It’s key to not just study but hear it, And then he takes a Q&A from the kids. Choirs have also performed a couple songs for him, and he was able to clinic them.

The news was something we woke up to this morning. I’m just hoping that advocates can stand up and convince them that it’s important to fund the arts. It’s such a small amount of the national budget, but does such a large amount of good. The goal of these visits to schools is to hope to open up a world of possibility for kids — to show that music can provide an avenue to better themselves, to show that they can go to college, get a scholarship, get out of generational poverty.

Actors Theatre of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky
In 2016, the theatre received a $50,000 Art Works to support their annual festival of New American plays. From Managing Director Kevin E. Moore:

We receive a grant from NEA to support the Humana Festival for New American Plays, which is the largest festival for new plays in the country. We’ve been doing it for 40 years. We’re in the middle of it right now. (Laughs). We’ve put out about 400 plays. Many have gone on to great success, to become movies, plays around the country.

This is going to not just hurt us but the state of Kentucky. Really the impact is going to be felt by the state art councils, like the Kentucky Arts Council. This is their life blood, and then the money gets distributed throughout the state — to artists in rural areas, to institutions in rural Kentucky, to small towns across America.  That will be felt hard. Let’s put it this way: I have to work with budgets everyday. When you are cutting a budget, you want to make the cuts have the least impact. The impact of this is way harder, stronger, than the actual cut itself.

Right now we’re looking at our budget, but what we’re doing more of is advocating on behalf of the NEA, to make sure these cuts don’t happen. Monday and Tuesday is Arts Advocacy Day, and a bunch of us from Kentucky are going to Capitol Hill to meet with Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and our other representatives to register our concern over this — as a city and as a state.

Correction: The grants listed by the Coleman Center were originally described as NEA grants. They are actually non-NEA grants that would be eliminated under the Trump budget, in addition to the NEA cuts.

More on Trump’s budget proposal:

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