How Far Can Zero Cents Go?
Over recent weeks, state government has been meeting to discuss the funding of the arts (and the entire state budget, to be honest). It’s being said that, as a courtesy to those who cannot afford the arts, well, they shouldn’t have to pay for them, and that the arts are a luxury.
In recent years, groups like The Cardinal Institute (CI) released reports expressing their views and concerns on the current state of the WV budget. Where the CI felt taxes were unnecessary, bullet points are shown, citing their reasons why the arts shouldn’t be federally (and governmentally) funded.
There seems to be a caricature-like stigma attached to the arts, where art is labelled as a “One million dollar painting”, and where the arts shouldn’t propose ideas that aren’t agreed with (see report for more details). It’s true that art often encourages us to ask questions, to feel uncomfortable, and to see things in ways we may not have, before. But when do we decide that the arts are a luxury?
To the contrary, the arts play many valuable roles in society:
Need more convincing (and want something closer to home)? Here's a sweet rundown by the WV Department of Culture and History (shared by Arts Advocates of West Virginia):
The NEA has become a buzzword of sorts for arts funding, but many people aren’t really aware of what it is. So what is the NEA?
“The national endowment for the arts—the NEA—…was not intended to solve a problem, but rather to embody a hope. The NEA was established to nurture American creativity, to elevate the nation’s culture, and to sustain and preserve the country’s many artistic traditions. The Arts Endowment’s mission was clear—to spread this artistic prosperity throughout the land, from the dense neighborhoods of our largest cities to the vast rural spaces, so that every citizen might enjoy America’s great cultural legacy.” -opening paragraph of the NEA Historical PDF from arts.gov.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s-1940s, preceding the NEA, the Work Projects Administration (or WPA) was created to provide jobs for over 3 millions unemployed people.
Headed by Harry Hopkins, one of the most successful aspects of the WPA was Federal Project Number One, which employed musicians, artists, writers, actors, directors in large arts, drama, media and literacy projects, allowing at least one member of every household (participating in the program) to have employment. Artists were hired for a variety of reasons, including making travel guides for all 50 states, travel posters and journals. Photographers were journaling the great depression, and many were paid by the government to document this time period.
Pre-dating the Great Depressions, during WWI, sculptors were hired to create masks for those who became disfigured during battle.
Government funding of artists is not a new concept.
And it’s not just “frivolous, luxurious art” that’s being funded. The arts includes visual arts, design, theatre, music, dance, as well as performance, fairs and festivals, and programs that encourage critical thinking, teamwork, the process of emotions, cognitive skills and comprehension in ways that physical activity, math, science and social studies don’t access.
Programs like West Virginia Public Broadcasting (WVPB) are also under budgeting discussion-including funding for Mountain Stage. Based in Charleston, Mountain Stage reaches over 200 stations in the nation, showcasing national as well as local musicians. WVPB is our state provider of PBS Kids TV programming, providing free educational programming on local television. If WVPB’s funding is cut back, this could jeopardize the station, possibly closing it down and making WV the only state in the US without a public broadcasting tv station.
So what if we do lose government funding?
It’s also true that arts programming, in addition to receiving government funding, is often also the recipient of corporate and private funding. But time and time again, it’s not enough. Often the government funding is brought in to fill the gaps that happen when local and corporate don’t meet all costs. If state funding like the Commission on the Arts and West Virginia Public Broadcasting is gone (which is a possibility on the discussion table, this week), there won’t be enough money to continue.
Grants are also not just hand-me-downs. There’s often a rigorous process to apply and then stay in good graces with proven data, showing the money is going to a good and helpful cause. It’s some of the most accountable govt funding out there. Not everyone gets funded. And even if you do, you rarely get all you need.
And what if National (NEA) funding is the only one cut?
There’s a “Three-pronged set of cuts” that will happen:
Say the Commission on the Arts funds are eliminated. These state funds are what provide the state's required match to receive NEA funds (in the grant world, oftentimes, funds must be met with a matching amount). So if the state funds are cut, this also cuts the federal funds the state would otherwise receive as a resource. So it’s all interrelated.
“In Wood County, the county commission (which is strapped, too) has cut its contributions to local arts organizations by about 50%,” Drew Tanner, Marketing Director for People's Bank Theatre shared with me.
One of the biggest challenges is, the needs may not be as noticeable in larger, more populated cities (where members of the government often live and meet). It’s the smaller towns-the ones where, if funding was cut to the only performance venue within an hour or two of “home”, access to the arts would be greatly restricted.
“If NEA--and by extension, West Virginia Commission on the Arts--funding was cut, a lot of smaller arts organizations would really struggle to make up the difference. At the Pocahontas County Opera House (which is where Drew used to work)-that’s basically half of the artist fees for their 15 or so shows for a year. They would likely have to cut back on the number of shows they do, and maybe even cut back at least one job position. One of the current employees is through AmeriCorp, which has also been proposed to be cut or eliminated next year. In a community the size of Pocahontas County, to raise thousands to make up for lost NEA and Commission on the Arts funding is really a tall order.” Drew Tanner also said. Drew has worked at the Pocahontas County Opera House, as well as West Virginia Arts Presenters, and knows firsthand the benefits of arts funding.
"Smaller venues also benefit from shows like Mountain Stage, because the touring artists performing there might not require as large of a payment to play a bookending show at a smaller venue nearby, while they're in region.", Tanner added.
Come Friday, WV Legislature meetings will wrap, and a budgeting decision will be made as to wether we get to keep the same amount we currently have (which is not likely), half, or even none of the current funding.
The government funding we’re fighting for? It doesn’t just come out of nowhere. It IS our money. We’re the ones who are contributing to create the fund.
If WV Legislature wraps this week, is it too late for us?
No. If anything, call now, while final decisions are being made:
Tips for calling?
It’s not the most effective use of your time or energy to vent to the office holder and/or secretary/voice mail. Have a script: I’d like to talk with you about the future of WVPB. As a registered voter in WV, this is important to me. Be kind. But state your concerns. My kids benefit from this. My community benefits from this. Share personal stories. I’m a person with stories and have had personal impact through arts funding. This is what I’ll miss out on.
For me, as a visual artist, I’ve benefitted from state funded places like the Parkersburg Art Center (which has showcased my work more than once, allowing me to incorporate a community building blanket fort project), as well as programs that have allowed me to work with elementary and middle school students, exploring art as a way of problem solving, team building and supporting my family as a career.
On Sunday, Mountain Stage will be coming to the Peoples Bank Theatre-a theater that was restored because government funding brought the possibility. No doubt at least one of the performing artists became inspired to perform through some kind of arts program, as a child, which was supported (at least in part) by government funding. Hundreds of music fans will come to the area, eating dinner in local restaurants, possibly staying at local hotels, and getting to know the charming town of Marietta (some for the fist time), thanks to funding. The restoration artists who brought life back to a gutted landmark were also (at least in part) paid by such funding. And I will be photographing the show, to document history in the making (with this Mountain Stage visit), and also being paid through the same funding. This coming Sunday would be a completely different day, if it hadn’t been for the help of arts funding.
So before you do anything else today (and tomorrow), please call your reps and make it known that you would appreciate arts funding remaining in the budget-for you, for your children, and for your community.
Extreme thanks to Drew Tanner, for meeting with me to process my thoughts, and for writing just as much of this as I did. Special thanks to Aaron Crites for the cool tip on WWI sculpted masks. And many thanks to the HTN (and my community for providing feedback and support on the research for this story). Together we can keep the arts going strong!