Rural America: Why We Must Fight for the NEA
We have been here before. Over the last 30 years, we have survived a number of campaigns to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Each time, the politicians who called for defunding the NEA, an agency that accounts for a tiny fraction of the federal budget and has always been too small for our large and diverse nation, demonstrated that they misunderstood what the NEA does and what the arts do for our country and for ourselves. The foes of the NEA, who still don’t get it, have not yet succeeded in eradicating the agency, but they might succeed this time. I tell you now that it can happen, and we must resist with all our hearts and might.
I know that it can happen because it did in Kansas under my watch. I was the executive director of the Kansas Arts Commission, founded in 1966, when Gov. Sam Brownback proposed its elimination. Along with thousands of arts advocates, I fought back, but the agency was officially abolished in 2012 after being defunded in 2011. For a while, there was nothing to replace it. Yet arts advocates continued their fight, and eventually a smaller entity within the Department of Commerce was created.
The Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission has little money and does not qualify for matching dollars from the NEA. It has none of the power or leadership that the Kansas Arts Commission once wielded. If the political tide ever changes in Kansas, it may gain some degree of authority and the ability to galvanize and guide. Not yet and not now. We all lost when the Kansas Arts Commission disappeared.
Certainly those in Kansas had the most to lose: the artists, arts administrators, volunteers, arts audiences and participants who benefited from the funding and programs nurtured by the Arts Commission were left bereft and angry. The governor’s action emboldened the anti-public-funding-for–the-arts movement, which is populated by a network of right-wing legislators and their funders. Arts advocates were demoralized and exhausted by this battle, and then they turned to the many other battles they wage. Even we who dedicate our lives to the arts tend to privilege other political fights, and we tell ourselves that all those other issues are more important than the arts.
But the public value of the arts is fundamental. Not because the arts are important to our economy, although they are. Yes, “art works”: the arts do provide jobs and attract quality businesses and employees to our communities; they can be economically valuable. And yet there are things whose value is not explained by dollars and cents, things that are part of the social fabric that binds us together and enriches our lives. To insist on valuing these goods only in monetary terms diminishes us all.
The arts make life worth living. They connect us as people; they open worlds to us; they allow us to dream and to express ourselves. They help us question who we are, and they help us define the impact we seek to have on others and on our world. They give joy and they comfort us. They startle and surprise us. They make us cry, and they nurture our souls. They are what’s best about humanity, and we, artists and non-artists, old and young, rich and poor, need the arts in order to be fully human.
Elected officials do not always connect the dots.
I know from personal experience that if you ask a rural legislator hostile to government funding for the arts what his or her children or grandchildren enjoy about school, a big, broad smile stretches across the legislator’s face, and you hear about the marching band or the theater class. If you ask about their parents or grandparents, you hear about the local arts center, often the only gathering place in a small community, where the older generation has a place to tell their stories under the tutelage of a writer, where they can take a weekly collage or painting class or participate in a quilting circle. Most legislators know that their communities need and want local arts centers and arts programs. But these elected officials do not always connect the dots, and so they vote against their own self-interest and their community’s best interests.
Rural schools and arts centers are not wealthy. They don’t pay their employees well and many of them don’t pay employees at all. The smallest of our nation’s communities manage and operate art centers through the work of dedicated volunteers.
These small arts organizations are part of an extraordinary web of support, both private and public, that was launched in 1965 with the establishment of the NEA. This funding matrix makes it possible for the arts to thrive in even the remotest communities and allows each community to define and nurture the kind of arts that they desire. National funding makes its way to states and local communities (by statute, 40% of the NEA’s budget goes to state arts agencies, which must match the money with state-allocated dollars) to support local and touring arts. While individuals may always make art, communities thrive when the arts are a part of everyday life in schools, colleges, arts centers and town squares.
This is the story I wish to tell: the value of the arts in the smallest, most isolated of our American communities; the success stories and the struggles; the relationship between recreational artists and professional artists, and how, in smaller communities, that divide is almost invisible. I will also talk about the state and local legislators of both parties who work every day to promote and support the arts. With each post, I will suggest an action, something each one of us can do in our own communities to maintain public funding for the arts. (Hint: it’s not sending an automated email through a national organization, although that doesn’t hurt.)
I hope you will help me do that. Tell me the story of the arts in your community — the successes and failures, how the arts are valued or not valued, and if the perceived value of the arts has changed over time.
Together we will write a quilt about the arts in rural America today. We will tell the story of the amazing way people make the arts happen in small towns and cities, of how artists and the arts are everywhere, and how the NEA has democratized the arts for the benefit of all of us. Together, we will create a powerful narrative about the importance of public funding for the arts. Together, we will build an even stronger arts movement.
Email me at [email protected]. And we will take action.
First — and right now — identify your member of Congress and your Senators. Tell them in a personal email, a personal letter, a meeting in your community or by a phone call why the arts are important to you and why the abolition of the NEA is shortsighted and unacceptable to you as an American.