Boston Artists React to NEA Defunding

The Harvard Crimson
April 27, 2017
By Lucy Wang

April 28 marks the end of President Trump’s first 100 days in office, and with it, the expiration of the current funding level for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. President Trump’s administration is currently considering a complete elimination of these programs, alongside the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museums and Library Services, as part of a budget plan to cut annual federal spending by over $1 trillion. In 2016, the fiscal spending of the U.S. totaled to $3.899 trillion. The combined spending of the NEA, NEH, CPB, and IMLS constituted less than 0.02% of that.

Last fall, Massachusetts received almost $1.7 million in grants from the NEA. However, Greg P. Liakos, communications director at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, said that federal funding doesn’t constitute the majority of fiscal support in Massachusetts for the arts.

“It has never represented a significant system of the support system of the non-profit artistic organizations in the Massachusetts community,” he said.

Instead, these organizations provide high-level approval and support for developments in the arts. “A grant from a government agency, like the NEA, that has gone through a rigorous review process can be a real source and seal of approval that shows we have real quality and rigor in terms of our program, and that can lead to many other open doors,” Liakos said.

This can be especially important for starting organizations in under-resourced regions. Lizabeth Cohen, professor and the Dean of the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study, said that Harvard’s academic research will continue on without federal funding, but other regions and institutions may not be able to do so. “Despite the stereotypes, [the NEA and NEH] are not supporting only elite high culture,” Cohen said. “Rather, both endowments have worked hard to spread their limited resources throughout the country, to rural and metropolitan communities alike.”

In Boston, smaller organizations such as Project STEP (String Training Educational Program for Students of Color) benefit from NEA funding. The organization provides opportunities for students in struggling neighborhoods to explore music to which they otherwise would have lacked access.

Gabriella Sana, Executive Director of Project STEP, said that especially in the starting stages of the organization, government support helped immensely. “In the past, when our operating budget was smaller and we were just beginning, the NEA funding made up up to 15 to 20 percent of our operating budget,” Sana said.

Another local project funded by the NEA is the Boston ArtScience Prize. Kimberly Suda-Blake, who is a staff member of the ArtScience Prize, said that science and art are actually closely interrelated. “What we do at the Idea Translation Labs in Boston is at the intersection of art and science, and the arts funding is an integral part to all our projects,” she said.

Cohen also notes how important NEH funding was in her academic career. “I am aware that for historians like me, an NEH grant can make a very real difference in one’s career, as it provides resources to support research and writing. To supplement sabbatical pay, I have had two NEH grants over my career,” she said.

In addition, she sees the NEH grants as a mark of accomplishment and a responsibility to be fulfilled. “Not only was the financial support helpful, but I was proud that my historical work was being supported by public funds,” Cohen said. “As an NEH recipient, I felt a great responsibility to do work that would prove worthy of the nation’s trust.”

Despite the possible threats, Sana said that the NEA itself has not talked much about shutting down. This is not the first time that the NEA or NEH has faced cutbacks from the government. President Reagan also arrived in office with intentions to eliminate the NEA. The program only saw budget cuts of ten percent by the end of his term in office.

There has always been some opposition, according to Liakos. “There’s always been consistent arguments about government funding in general and federal funding for the arts in various pockets of American political discourse,” he said. “The most recent really is largely grounded in libertarian ideology.”

For Stephen Greenblatt, a professor in Harvard’s English department, however, there is no more pressing need than supporting the arts. “That’s a ridiculous question. It’s almost offensive. America is a great country with lots of culture and that culture is important to who we are. Is it not? The way we sustain that culture is through the humanities, through the arts,” he said.

Across the board, arts organizations agree that budget cuts to the NEA would be detrimental. Kathleen Bitetti, artist and co-founder of the Massachusetts Artists Leaders Coalition, said, "I find nothing good about the Trump budget for our sector. He wants to eliminate everything, and it's not good for anybody."

Other arts organizations in Boston have also voiced their concerns and support for the NEA. Principal dancer John Lam of the Boston Ballet released a video of “new work with 22 Boston Ballet dancers sharing what dance means to them.” In a Boston Ballet press release, Lam said, “I wanted to create a work that expresses the importance and purpose of dance at this crucial time in our society.”

As polarized as the recent political scene may seem, Greenblatt believes that arts funding should be supported regardless. “The arts are not, and should not be, a partisan issue,” he said. “In fact, I would love to see funding increased,” he said. “There’s a lot of issues that are blue-state and red-state … But not the issue of the arts.”

The benefits of the NEA transcend social classes, according to Greenblatt. “This funding doesn’t exist in order to enhance the cultural life of a number of ultra-elite wealthy people,” he said. “It’s shared very very broadly, and it’s something that America needs.”

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