Dallas Arts Groups Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts Chime in on Its Possible Elimination

The Watertower Theatre in Addison applies for and receives grants from the NEA, but as with most arts organizations, the grants make up only a small percentage of the theater's operating budget.
The Watertower Theatre in Addison applies for and receives grants from the NEA, but as with most arts organizations, the grants make up only a small percentage of the theater's operating budget.
Courtesy of Watertower Theatre
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When government leaders start calling for budget cuts, arts funding is usually the first item they stick under the guillotine, and this time, the cuts could be more extensive than just a little off the top. Arts funding could be thrown into an empty field and run over with a combine harvester.

Recently The Hill reported that President Donald Trump’s administration is proposing to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) altogether, as well as privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

While Congress would have to give its approval before these changes could be implemented — no easy feat, even when the GOP controls Congress and the White House — many local arts organizations that receive funding from these government agencies are feeling nervous about what this news could mean for them.

“We’re all trying to get our heads around it and the implications of [the proposed cuts],” says Gigi Antoni, the president and chief executive officer of the Dallas youth, arts and culture nonprofit Big Thought. “Part of me thinks it’s not going to happen, but it’s possible given what’s happened [since he was inaugurated]. It’s very destabilizing because it’s so unknown.”

Arts organizations that apply for NEA grants have been through budget cuts before and even a similar proposal to eliminate the independent federal arts agency; it has consistently seen budget cuts since the early days of its founding in 1965.

According to the book Our Government and the Arts: A Perspective from the Inside written by former NEA chairman Livingston Biddle, former President Ronald Reagan and his transition team planned on eliminating the NEA and NEH when he moved into the White House in 1981 until a special presidential task force reported on the groups’ “benefits of past assistance.”

“It’s very important that this country believes in supporting the arts,” says Bart Weiss, a film professor at the University of Texas at Arlington and president of the Video Association of Dallas, which organizes the annual Dallas Video Festival. “Art adds culture that makes us richer as a community. Most parts of the world believe in supporting arts programs.”

These and other arts groups’ budgets aren’t sustained by NEA grants alone. For most of them, the majority of their revenue comes from private donations and ticket sales. State and federal grants make up a much smaller portion of their budgets and are usually allocated to specific programs and projects.

Big Thought, for instance, was approved for a $100,000 Art Works grant last December to fund a summer youth arts program. The program is the result of a partnership with the Dallas Independent School District and the arts advocacy group Dallas City of Learning, which serves 30,000 children per year, according to Antoni.

The Dallas Chamber Symphony received its first $50,000 Our Town grant back in May to fund their “Takin’ It to the Streets” initiative, which brings live music to homeless shelters such as The Bridge Homeless Recovery Center and youth aid facilities such as The Wayman Learning Center, where the DCS can reach people who many not otherwise have access to arts programs.

“To put this in perspective, through our outreach concerts, our organization can now reach tens of thousands of people,” says Richard McKay, the Dallas Chamber Symphony's artistic director and conductor. “That means there are some educational programs at the Dallas County Juvenile Center for at-risk kids, which are critical programs scripted to teach life skills and help them to develop critical thinking skills and social skills — the kinds of skills that they need to be successful in life. Those programs would have to be scaled back or curtailed [if the NEA were defunded].”

Receiving a federal grant isn’t as simple as calling up the NEA and asking for a check. Weiss says that as both the founder of a nonprofit arts group and a former NEA panel member, he knows firsthand that the review process for grants is arduous. As a result, nonprofit groups that have received an NEA grant often have greater credibility and merit in the arts community, which in turn helps to attract more private donors and create new revenue streams.

“It’s like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” Weiss says. “It means the peers in your field believe that what you’re doing in the community has great value. So when you go to others looking for support, you can say, ‘The people in our area believe our organization is worthy.’”

Many arts leaders also point to the large economic impact their programs can have when given even a comparatively small amount of money by the government.

“When you add it up cumulatively, it does make a big impact not only locally but also nationally,” says Greg Patterson, the managing director for the Watertower Theatre in Addison. “If I were in Trump’s cabinet, [I would look at] the total economic impact the arts provides to our economy nationally, and that number is huge.”

A study conducted by the national arts advocacy group Americans for the Arts found that nonprofit arts programs generated $135.2 billion in economic activity and sustained 4.13 million full-time jobs in 2010. Federal appropriations for the NEA were nearly $148 million last year.

Federal spending may also be a major concern for Republicans and Democrats in Washington but those cuts wouldn’t make a huge dent in the national deficit. Even if the Trump administration successfully cut the NEA, NEH and CPB out of its new budget, they would only eliminate 0.02 percent in federal spending, according to The Washington Post.

Patterson has a theory as to why politicians and budget hawks frequently set their sights on the NEA when they need to make up for excess spending.

“I think the arts are always easy targets for politicians because artists often [ask] challenging and difficult [questions] and for some, that’s not comfortable to look at, but in fact, doesn’t it make for a better community and society?” Patterson says. “It helps educate people about different perspectives and points-of-view of different people’s lives.”

The educational benefit can reach both children and adults, Antoni says.

“Kids who have access to arts learning in the K-12 years are more likely to graduate, more likely to go to college and make more money as adults,” she says. “It’s a huge help for people who are immigrating and helps kids understand the world and their place in it. It gives kids the skills, the understanding and the capacity to help them be successful and it even has a similar impact on adults. It’s that issue of understanding cultures and how they connect.”

The loss of these federal funds in the name of fiscal responsibility may not lead to the total destruction of these and other artistic nonprofits. However, it would certainly hinder their efforts to provide valuable artistic programs to the public during such uncertain and confusing times.

“It would be very, very difficult to continue the level of what we’re doing without that money,” Weiss says. “I’m not saying we wouldn’t be able to find a way to do it, only that it’s going to be harder, and I think that nowadays we need arts and entertainment more than ever. The world is changing every day. We get headlines that can be very depressing and at the very least, there’s so much uncertainty and arts have a way of portraying events in the world in a historical context so we can sort of feel and resonate with what’s going on and contextualize it.”

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