From Blues to the “Peanutcracker,” Government Support for the Arts Helps Create Access for All

Posted by Mr. Robert Lynch, May 25, 2017

Something a bit unexpected and wonderful happened on May 4. Seven months late and spanning two administrations, Congress approved a $1.1 trillion omnibus appropriations bill that will fund the federal government for the rest of Fiscal Year 2017. This bill not only meant that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) can continue to do their good work of funding nonprofit arts and humanities organizations in all 50 states and every congressional district, but it also allocated $2 million more to each agency, bringing their budgets to $150 million, respectively.

I recently wrote a post about advocacy. This bipartisan agreement is a perfect example of how tremendous grassroots arts advocacy efforts proved effective—sending thousands of letters, emails, phone calls; personal visits; op-eds; news articles; targeted advertising; and using research to make the case to Congress.

It’s easy to rattle off numbers, but what does this increase in funding really mean? Great projects across the country will now get to continue.

Last year, the NEA recommended more than 2,400 grants in nearly 16,000 communities in every congressional district in the country. A review of NEA grants shows that the majority go to small and medium-sized organizations, and the diversity among these grant recipients is unmatched by any other U.S. funder. One grant program, “Challenge America,” is dedicated to reaching underserved communities—those whose opportunities to experience the arts are limited by geography, ethnicity, economics, or disability.

Lewisburg, West Virginia—a tiny Appalachian town of under 4,000 people—has one of only four Carnegie Halls still in continuous use in the world. A “Challenge America” grant will go on to support a project celebrating the cultural history of Southern traditional music. Two exhibitions, the Music Maker Relief Foundation's We Are the Music Makers and the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame's Music of the Coalfields, will be presented in Lewisburg’s Carnegie Hall along with other programming such as live performances—one featuring blues musician Eric Bibb—classes, and film screenings. This grant targeting a rural community helps ensure access to the arts.

Across the country, the Sierra Nevada Ballet in Reno, Nevada, is dazzling audiences with Peanutcracker—The Story in a Nutshell, a narrated, 45-minute version of The Nutcracker designed for families of young children to introduce them to ballet for the first time. A “Challenge America” grant provides the Sierra Nevada Ballet the opportunity to present the ballet to low-income, K-5 students at no cost, and offer handouts and other information prior to the performances to help students understand the art of ballet. For some children, this may be the only exposure to the ballet, or even to the arts, that they have had.

The arts also help heal the signature wounds of war suffered by our military service members and veterans. Americans for the Arts works with the NEA to administer its nationwide Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network, which places creative arts therapies at the core of treatment for traumatic brain injuries and psychological health at 11 clinical sites, plus a telehealth program which, when fully operational, will increase access to creative arts therapy for military members, veterans, and their families. The program also invests in research on the impacts and benefits of these innovative treatment methods, and related community engagement activities. Creative Forces is demonstrating how art and music therapy can maximize the healing and recovery of those who have fought for the freedoms of our country—vital work that will continue thanks to budget increases specifically allocated to expand military healing arts programs.

Programs like this are powerful and positive experiences that enhance the quality of life for those involved, and illustrate the vital role that arts and culture can play in making communities healthier, more vibrant, more equitable places.

While I am thankful for the sheer number of such projects that benefit our communities large and small, near and far, I am often overcome by the fact that the need is even greater than what we are addressing now. Projects like this must continue past the fall, and in fact, should grow in number. While the signing of the FY17 omnibus bill is good news for the arts and culture sector, I remind all of us that the FY18 appropriations bill for funding the federal government from October 1, 2017 through September 30, 2018 is still very much in play and going through the legislative process. This FY18 bill is where the President recommended eliminating all funding for the NEA, the NEH, and the Institute for the Museum and Library Services.

The many projects funded by the NEA give children exposure to the arts that they may otherwise never have. They provide a way for whole communities to access regional music at low or no cost. They offer people the opportunity to experience the arts in new ways, and to heal. Projects funded by the NEA reflect the growing diversity of our country, and cannot be lost. We must remain focused on getting our cultural agencies fully funded again in the coming months.

This blog also was posted on The Huffington Post