For Art’s Sake: What the average Minnesotan stands to lose if NEA funding is cut

The Children’s Theater Company uses funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to put on productions like the recent “Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches The Musical” // Photo by Dan Norman

The budget battles over federal funding for cultural programs and organizations have tangible, pressing implications for the cultural economy and community access to the arts in Minnesota.

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If your kids got to see “The Sneetches” at the Children’s Theatre through a field trip at school, you’ve reaped the benefits of public funding for arts and culture. If you’ve ever taken in a show at Minnesota Opera or the Guthrie on date night, or participated in a special reading program at your local library, you’re also a beneficiary. And when your children come home from school, excited about working with a visiting artist in the classroom, or inspired by a hands-on session with a composer in their middle school’s orchestra practice, it’s likely that public dollars are behind the programs improving your child’s access to high-quality arts education.

On May 1, the United States Congress acted to ensure the current fiscal year’s budget for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and other threatened federal agencies will remain intact. But President Trump’s administration still has a proposal to cut federal funding for arts and culture programs, on which the House and Senate are set to vote later this fall. The Trump administration’s proposed budget would eliminate the NEA entirely by fiscal year 2018, along with shuttering the National Endowment for the Humanities, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

But what would that mean for Minnesotans, really?

Minnesota’s Culture Economy by the Numbers

Franconia Sculpture Park receives funding from the NEA // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Despite its relatively tiny draw on the federal budget—just $148 million out of the total $4 trillion budget annually—the National Endowment for the Arts (and the organizations, artists, creative workers, and projects that depend on it) is a cornerstone of the cultural economy of the state. Sheila Smith, executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, cites some key numbers from the recently released 2017 Creative Minnesota study. “There are 104,000 artists and creative workers in Minnesota,” Smith says. “Artists, creative workers, nonprofit arts and culture organizations, and their audiences amount to an economic impact in the state of over $2 billion each year.”

From the NEA, in particular, Minnesota received $5.3 million in 2016—“more NEA dollars per capita than any of our neighboring states,” Smith says. Minnesota arts organizations received 73 direct grants from the NEA last year, supporting projects in every congressional district. Beyond those direct grants, this year the Minnesota State Arts Board also received a $770,000 state partnership grant from the NEA—most of which was, in turn, re-granted to Minnesota artists and artist-led projects.

Smith notes that 60 percent of Minnesota’s NEA funding goes to programs serving low-income communities. “This is not about art for the elite,” she says. “This is about arts access. For 100 years, we’ve made access to arts and culture an important civic goal. This is about who we are, what we value—our very identity as a state.”

Beyond the cultural implications, cutting the NEA will have undoubtedly have workforce impacts in the state. “You can’t take $5.3 million out of an ecosystem and not see that have an effect,” Smith says. “Minnesota foundations don’t have the capacity to backfill federal funding. It’s the same conversation we’ve had around the importance of the Legacy Fund to the state’s arts and culture economy. Philanthropy just can’t fill that gap.”

Paul R. Coate, a theater artist and member of the Twin Cities Actors’ Equity Association, echoes that sentiment. During a speech at Mixed Blood Theatre on April 24 discussing proposed cuts to federal funding for the arts, Coate said: “When it comes to the NEA, I realize now how much skin-in-the-game I really have. The NEA has enabled me to work in my field, so I can feed my kids. The piece I just worked on, Dr. Seuss’s ‘The Sneetches’ at Children’s Theatre Company, was partially funded by a grant from the NEA. And I bet I can draw a straight line from the National Endowment for the Arts to a portion of the paychecks of every artist in this room.”

Should the NEA and other cultural agencies hit the chopping block, ordinary Minnesotans will feel the pinch in their quality of life, too. Most of the state’s big arts and culture players are supported with NEA dollars: organizations like the Walker Art Center, Guthrie, Ordway, Children’s Theatre, and Minnesota Orchestra. “A Prairie Home Companion” even got its start thanks to an NEA grant. The NEA’s Blue Star Museum program gives active members of the military and their families free admission to 24 museums throughout the state. Through the Minneapolis-based organization Arts Midwest, which serves a nine-state region including Minnesota, the NEA supports the national community reading initiative, “The Big Read,” as well as “Shakespeare in American Communities.” That program has brought students from 195 middle and high school classrooms in 54 counties around the state into theaters for productions of classic Shakespeare plays.

Minnesota’s literary scene is another huge beneficiary of NEA support: Milkweed Editions, Graywolf, and Coffee House Press, all luminaries in the publishing industry, have received substantial grants from the agency. Chris Fischbach, publisher of Coffee House Press, says that while NEA grants comprise about five percent of his business’ annual budget, “it’s something I’m very concerned about, both as a citizen and as leader of an arts nonprofit.” He goes on to explain, “If we lost that money for book projects, we’d have to replace it—which means some of our other programming, education, and community arts work would suffer. We’d have to focus on work more directly connected to our earned income streams.”

The Cedar Cultural Center’s Global Roots Festival // Photo by John Behm

Do you listen to live music? The Hot Summer Jazz Festival, Cantus, American Composers Forum, the Lake Area Music Festival in Brainerd, and Minnesota Opera are just a few of the state’s recent NEA grantees. Adrienne Dorn, executive director of the Cedar Cultural Center, says, “NEA Art Works grants have funded the Cedar’s annual Global Roots Festival for seven years now—that’s 61 global artists from over 27 countries that we’ve been able to bring to Minnesota audiences.” She goes on to note, “the festival has been free for most of its existence, and that’s also largely thanks to NEA support.”

It’s not only community art, music in the park, good books, live theater, and museum exhibitions that may disappear from Minnesota under the proposed cuts. Access to our state’s creative culture and programming, particularly in rural areas, low-income communities, and arts education, would certainly be diminished as well.

John Hock, artistic director and CEO of Franconia Sculpture Park near Taylors Falls, draws a direct line from NEA support to what the park is able to offer its rural east central Minnesota community. Hock says, “The NEA supports our fellowship program. It’s not the only funder we count on, but it’s a pivotal one.” Hock says, “For every NEA dollar we get, we match it with five dollars from other funders to make our artist residency fellowship program at Franconia possible. And there’s a trickle-down effect in our arts education program and what we can offer, both in local schools and in the park.”

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He’s blunt: “A third of our fellowships are directly funded through NEA money. So, if it were to go away, we’d have to reduce our artists’ support by a third, which isn’t good.” He says, “Arts organizations like ours—we’ll survive, but we’ll all be cutting back. It comes down to the question: How do we not just survive, but stay innovative?”

Matthew Fluharty, co-founder and director of the Winona-based outfit and NEA grantee, Art of the Rural, agrees. In addition to its work creating platforms for young, rural creatives and resources for community development, the organization just opened a brick-and-mortar space in Winona, called Outpost, which will host exhibitions and programs that will “continue to put rural people on the cultural map.” He says, “If the NEA goes away, we don’t just lose funds. It’s a spiritual blow to folks who already feel they’re working without recognition, wondering where support is going to come from in the next six months.”

“Conservatively speaking,” Fluharty says, “rural Americans account for 18 percent of the nation’s population but receive less than six percent of the philanthropy.” He calls it a “criminally inequitable” distribution of resources, and says the NEA has “excelled in meeting rural arts and culture where they are—learning what kinds of projects make the most sense for specific regions, and responding to those needs accordingly.”

Gülgün Kayim (director of arts, culture, and the creative economy for the City of Minneapolis) spoke up at the Star Tribune’s April 24 “Arts in the Crossfire” forum on public funding for the arts. Kayim said, “research by the City of Minneapolis demonstrates the market can’t support the arts in an equitable way. Data provided by the NEA also indicates that, across the country, philanthropic funds are not evenly distributed among people of color and artists of color.” She added: “Government needs to step in where the market has failed […] and intervene on behalf of equity.”

Speaking at the same Star Tribune-hosted discussion, U.S. Representative Betty McCollum pointed to the significance of federal funding in schools and youth-oriented programs: “Arts education teaches young people to think creatively, to work effectively with others, to bring fresh ways of thinking to STEM disciplines like engineering and math. The NEA has been critical to funding those kinds of programs, and you just can’t put a price tag on that.”

Laura Zabel, executive director of Springboard for the Arts, put it simply: “This is ultimately about engagement with our own culture, an expression of who we are and what we value.”