FEATURE: CULTURE KILLER

By on April 4, 2017

How gutting the National Endowment for the Arts will hurt Jackson Hole.

Cover illustration by Ryan Stolp

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Ιt’s been three weeks since President Trump released his federal budget plan that would slash funding to key social and cultural federal agencies. Among the proposed cuts, Trump wants to completely eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. Though NEA has faced challenges in the past, Trump is the first president to formally propose ditching it altogether. Local arts organizations are still reeling from the announcement. Some have begun dire deliberations about what programming to lose if NEA disappears.

The heart of the issue, however, goes even deeper. Trump’s proposed cuts are sparking a spirited defense of the role of the arts in society. Here in Jackson, with our abundant art scene, the topic is critical. We need only survey a handful of arts organizations to see the ways arts programming benefits our lives, and our economy. But if the government refuses to value the arts, what ripple effect will that have on how our community defines itself and how we chart our future?

‘A Nation’s most precious heritage’

The Art Association is currently preparing for the April 29 opening of the Art in Translation exhibition, a cross-cultural collaboration that explores Jackson Latinos’ sense of home. Led by a curator from Mexico City and involving three Mexican contemporary artists, the exhibition has involved months of research, including travel to Jackson and Tlaxcala, Mexico, original home to many Latinos now in Jackson. The project culminates this month with a series of artist talks, educational events, and an art exhibition at the Art Association gallery.

Art Association executive director Mark Nowlin said that the impetus behind Art in Translation was to spur community conversations using a variety of art mediums. “This project helps bridge two different cultures so they can talk to each other more easily.”

For the exhibition, multi-disciplinary artist Edgardo Aragón will present a video showcasing the parallel landscapes shared by Jackson and Tlaxcala. Artist Sandra Calvo will create an installation piece about housing, shelter, and territory issues in the valley. Artist and writer Verónica Gerber will present a radio program designed to share similar stories in both English and Spanish. Each art experience aims to foster understanding and dialogue.

The Art in Translation exhibition received a $15,000 grant directly from the National Endowment for the Arts. Such awards are extremely competitive and held in high esteem. Without that funding, the exhibition would not have happened.

“This project is above and beyond our normal budget,” said Jill Callahan, Art Association development director. “We are stretching ourselves to do this for the community. Without funding from the NEA, we couldn’t do it.”

Not only do the actual dollars go a long way to meeting the budgetary needs of a project like Art in Translation, but other arts donors and funding organizations see an NEA grant as a stamp of approval.

“For us to receive an NEA award is a big indication of credibility,” Callahan said. “We’ve seen a catalyst effect. Because of the NEA funding we were able to secure three other sources of funding.”

This is a common refrain among arts organizations, NEA funding helps other funders feel secure about providing money too.

“Government support provides that confidence to a donor that the state or federal government is invested in a project,” said Babs Case, Dancers’ Workshop artistic director.

Jackson Hole Public Art director Carrie Geraci agrees. “It’s like seed money,” she said. “It’s the spark that shows there’s value to a program or project. This creates real inspiration for other donors to get on board and know that they are funding projects that are transformative for communities, students, and artists.”

NEA was created to do just this, to provide necessary funding and seed other funding for arts programs. Congress established it in 1965, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Arts and Humanities bill that established the two independent federal agencies, he pointed to the vital role the arts play in human history.

“Art is a nation’s most precious heritage,” Johnson said. “For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.”

NEA supports visionary artists and arts programming in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories. Forty percent of its grant-making budget is awarded directly to the states through their state and regional arts agencies. The other 60 percent are awards made directly to organizations and individuals. For fiscal year 2016, the National Endowment for the Arts’ appropriation of $147.9 million constituted approximately .004 percent of the federal budget—a miniscule amount when compared to the $3 billion Trump asked for to pay for his controversial U.S.-Mexico border wall and other immigration enforcement plans.

Case said Trump’s proposed cuts are disheartening. “It makes me deeply sad for our country because it isn’t going to make that much of a difference in our national budget or deficit,” she said.

But it will make a big difference to arts organizations that depend on every penny they can raise. While not all arts organizations rely heavily on NEA funding, many—especially rural arts organizations—receive at least part of their annual operating budget from grants from their state arts council. That is in addition to any direct funding from NEA for special projects like Art in Translation.

In fact, underserved and marginalized communities have the most to lose if the NEA disappears. When Trump announced his budget, the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture issued a statement, urging their supporters to take action.

“Let’s create momentum, stay engaged in resistance, and work collectively across sectors to advocate for support of the NEA and other threatened agencies,” the statement read. “Together, we must stay vigilant of the calculated frameworks of nationalism and racism that enshrine the current administration.”

Rural states will be hit hard

According to Wyoming Arts Council executive director Michael Lange, state arts councils were set up to be the pass-through entities for NEA funding. They are required to match NEA funds one-to-one with state funding. As with private donors, federal monies are leveraged to enhance arts funding overall.

“The NEA money comes to the states then the arts council re-grants the funds out to nonprofit organizations, government entities, and nongovernmental organizations around the state that sponsor arts programs,” Lange said.

“It’s a perfect example of federalism,” he continued. “It’s one of the only federal models that works like this, and it’s something to be proud of.”

As in other rural states, the Wyoming Arts Council’s NEA funding comprises a significant chunk of its annual budget. For fiscal year 2016, WAC received $708,700, or 40 percent of its budget. By comparison, California received about $1.3 million from NEA. But with a $20 million overall budget, NEA funding in California packs less of a punch.

Wyoming ranks third in the nation for amount of money received per person in grants from NEA. Most states receive less than $1 per person; Wyoming receives a little more than $1.25. Indeed, rural states will be the hardest hit if NEA is eliminated—Vermont, Alaska, South Dakota and Montana also rank high in terms of NEA dollars per person. Lange estimates that rural states would lose 40 percent of their arts councils. For these states, losing NEA funding could also drain state funding for the arts.

“One of the reasons that the partnership between the federal government and states has been so strong is because they have been able to hold each other accountable,” Lange said. “There’s no doubt that partnership is put in jeopardy if NEA funding goes away.”

If WAC’s budget was cut by 40 percent, but state funding remained the same, it would likely correlate to a 40 percent reduction in the amounts given to arts organizations. As Jackson’s nonprofit arts organizations try to make sense of how those kinds of cuts would affect them, several are trying to imagine receiving 40 percent less each year from WAC.  For some, it could mean the end of signature programs, and that’s best-case scenario, if state and private funding stays the same.

According to Jackson Hole Writers development director Jennifer Jellen, without federal arts funding, small community-focused organizations like hers would have to cut back dramatically in order to survive. “In our case, that would probably mean shuttering the annual Jackson Hole Writers Conference, an event which has been bringing top agents, editors and authors to our community for more than 26 years,” she said.

For Riot Act, Inc., its $7,000 grant from WAC makes up about 14 percent of its annual budget. So while it wouldn’t have to close its doors, it would impact its programming, according to director Macey Mott.

“It might mean that we do one less production per year,” Mott said. “Or it might mean we can’t do bigger budget shows like Hamlet.”

In addition to funding programs like theatrical productions and writers’ conferences, WAC also provides funding to arts education organizations like pARTners. A small organization with a lean budget, pARTners coordinates arts projects in kindergarten through eighth grade (CK) classrooms. It receives 20 percent of its funding from WAC. For pARTners’ executive director Ruth Moran, that money is essential.

“If WAC funds were cut, it would result in a tight squeezing of all our programming,” she said, adding that her budget is also affected by school district budget cuts.

And when arts education programs are forced to scale back, children suffer. “The arts are such a good thing for our children to be exposed to because, otherwise, how are they going to foster that creativity?” Moran said. “The arts give kids the ability to express themselves and try things out without fear of getting it wrong.”

Center of Wonder co-founder Gary Silberberg says that while presenting art is important, supporting the making of art—whether it’s children’s art or that of highly trained professionals—is even more essential in America. “Organizations that foster the making of art are under siege,” Silberberg said. “They only survive because of the commitment of their leaders.”

Center of Wonder is a local grant-making organization that distributes thousands of dollars to creative projects, organizations and individuals each year. Grant recipients include the Art in Translation exhibition, Thin Air Shakespeare, Teton Artlab artist residencies, pARTners, Dancers’ Workshop, Jackson Hole Public Art, Jackson Hole Writers, and numerous others. At the heart of Center of Wonder’s giving mission is a belief in the value of art.

“Art is essential to who we are as individuals and as a community,” Silberberg said. “Art has the power to be a counterpoint to a consumerist society.”

Like Silberberg, Mott says the arts are fundamentally a part of what it means to be human. “Art has been around since the cavemen,” she said. “It’s the way to express ourselves, and teach each other culturally.” She pointed to theater in particular. “Theater shows us what our culture is and who we are as people. It reflects how we interact with each other, and provides a way to talk about [difficult] topics.”

At the Center for the Arts, which houses 20 art, education, and humanities organizations, the impact of the arts on community is palpable. “There is a heartbeat going on here,” said Ponteir Sackrey, president of the Center Fund. “To dim that through the elimination of one of our country’s hallowed organizations is disheartening. The arts are part of our essential hierarchy of needs, like food and water.”

Jellen says the arts are about giving people a voice. “When we lose that, we lose our sense of self and community. We lose who we are.”

Painful economic loss

Something else more quantifiable is lost when the arts go away, and that’s money. The arts are a significant economic driver. A study by Americans for the Arts found that in 2010, nonprofit arts and culture organizations pumped an estimated $61.1 billion into the national economy. In Teton County alone, in 2010, nonprofit arts and culture organizations generated $1,820,000 of revenue to local government, and $2,916,000 to state government.

“Arts and culture are such economic drivers,” Geraci said. “To not invest in those is bad business.”

The 2010 Americans for the Arts economic study backs up Geraci’s assertion. According to the study, “Nonprofit arts and culture organizations are good business citizens. They are employers, producers, consumers, members of their chambers of commerce, and partners in the marketing and promotion of their cities and regions.”

The study found that in 2010, nonprofit arts and culture organizations supported 2.2 million U.S. jobs, a fact which lawmakers would be wise to heed if they are touting job creation as part of their platforms. Notably, the study also found that spending by arts and culture organizations resulted in $10.2 billion in total government revenue—for a $147 million investment.

Geraci said now is the time for concerned citizens to voice their support for NEA. The president’s proposed budget is only the beginning of a process. Congress ultimately writes budget and allocates funds, and that won’t happen until late summer. In the meantime, arts advocates like Geraci recommend delivering your message to elected officials.

“It would be helpful for arts administrators to invest in taking a trip to D.C., to visit our senators in their offices,” she said. “I am concerned our elected officials may not fully understand the value of the arts in Teton County and it would be unfortunate if they made decisions without being fully informed of the economic and quality of life impact the arts have.”

Both Sens. Barrasso and Enzi provided PJH with noncommittal statements regarding the president’s proposal to eliminate NEA. Though Enzi chairs the Senate Cultural Caucus, his press secretary Max D’Onofrio mentioned only vague arts support: “Senator Enzi has historically been a supporter of the arts and humanities,” D’Onofrio said.

However, a congressional report card conducted by the Americans for the Arts Action Fund in 2010 found the opposite. Enzi received a D+ and Barrasso received an F in regards to their support for the arts. Criteria included supporting museums and public art, voting to keep jobs in the arts, and showing leadership in the arts.

Based on Rep. Liz Cheney’s freshman voting record so far, she is expected to toe the Republican line. She has voted against public lands, environmental protections, abortion rights, and internet privacy. It’s hard to imagine rural arts programs passing muster with her.

Barrasso was challenged publicly about NEA funding in February when he attended a chamber of commerce meeting in Big Horn, Wyoming. Pinedale artist Isabel Rucker was in attendance and asked him about the threat to NEA. “He displayed a complete lack of knowledge of the issue and the organization and answered my question by saying Wyoming should ship beef to South Korea,” Rucker said. “When I pressed him a couple more times to answer whether he would support the NEA he dodged and said he’d see what Sen. Mike Enzi recommends.”

Instead of leaving things with Enzi, art lovers may want to more actively advocate for federal arts funding. Because they are federal programs, neither NEA nor state art councils can advocate for themselves. That’s where individuals, organizations and arts advocacy groups can play a vital role in the fate of NEA. On the front lines of that effort is the nonprofit Americans for the Arts (americansforthearts.org), which has numerous ways for citizens to become involved in saving NEA from petitions to letter-writing.

In the meantime, Lange urged Wyoming artists and arts groups to continue applying for Wyoming Arts Council grants.

“We are talking about a budget that would start July 1, 2018 and impact WAC grant awards that are not even open yet,” Lange said. “The arts council is moving forward as we always have. We are building stronger Wyoming communities and using art to do that. All grants that have been allocated are completely funded. Funds are also in place for current grants. Don’t miss a deadline.”

This is good news for Art in Translation—the funding is secure and the exhibition is right on track. Carmina Oaks is a local Latina who has been working with Art in Translation artist Sandra Calvo on an installation about housing and shelter. Calvo’s work will help paint a picture of life in Tlaxcala compared to life in the valley, and the housing challenges faced in each place. “It’s about making two communities come together instead of putting a block in between,” Oaks said.

Oaks hopes the Art in Translation project will foster the understanding people in Jackson are craving. By illuminating conditions in Tlaxcala and the sacrifices many Latinos have made to come to Jackson, the project builds empathy, and shows how the two communities support one another.

“The world is made of so many different cultures,” she said. “We need to be sure to be kind to each other and care for one another.”

At a time in history when leaders seek to divide people with walls, an art project that builds cultural bridges might just be priceless. PJH

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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