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The “Leveraging Effect”: Why Small Grants from the Endangered NEA & NEH Matter

Arts and humanities constituents rose to the challenge of meeting Monday’s deadline to gather more that 100,000 signatures on a petition to the White House calling for the federal government “to support the arts by not defunding” the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. All 107,779 of us (at this writing, and still counting) can now pat ourselves on the back and eagerly await “an official update from the White House within 60 days,” as promised on the White House’s website.

That’s a far cry from victory. (Hold the champagne.)

Rising to the occasion, the NY Times flooded the zone, assigning no less than five reporters to its Feb. 19 piece about how arts groups are now “Draft[ing] Battle Plans as Trump Funding Cuts Loom.” But even though three of that story’s authors  regularly cover the visual arts, that category was largely ignored in their report. (For more attention to the visual arts, see Graham Bowley‘s Jan. 30 NY Times piece—What if Trump Really Does End Money for the Arts?.)

Until today’s publication of an incisive NY Times Op-Ed piece by Metropolitan Museum director Tom Campbell, the discussions I’ve seen on why NEA and NEH should be spared the budget ax have largely overlooked what I regard as a primary benefit of federal arts-and-humanities largesse: While government grants are but a small fraction of cultural or scholarly organizations’ budgets, they have a major multiplying effect—either directly, through requiring that certain awards be matched by other outside sources, or indirectly, through the enhancement of recipients’ attractiveness to potential benefactors, thanks to the imprimatur of national recognition.

Even an institution as famous and revered as the Met has found this essential, as Campbell noted in his NY Times piece, which expanded upon his brief statement on his institution’s website. There he had asserted that “abolishing the NEA would have disastrous consequences for the arts and for communities across our nation.”

In today’s piece, he explained why:

Although the N.E.A. grant was a small part of the [Age of Empires] exhibition’s overall budget, it was crucial in persuading others to add their support.

NEA’s recent fact sheet does the math:

NEA grants provide a significant return on investment of federal dollars, with $1 of NEA direct funding leveraging up to $9 in private and other public funds, resulting in $500 million in matching support in 2016 [emphasis added].

This “leveraging effect” is particularly crucial for getting the word out and the funds flowing for less well established organizations, particularly those that target underserved audiences: For example, NEA’s Challenge America category supports “small and mid-sized organizations for projects that extend the reach of the arts to underserved populations—those whose opportunities to experience the arts are limited by geography, ethnicity, economics, or disability.” Those $10,000 grants—to such groups as the Alaska Native Heritage Center, Arkansas Symphony Orchestra Society and Knoxville (TN) Museum of Art (among many others) require at least a one-to-one match from other sources.

Current exhibition at Knoxville Museum of Art, supported by an NEA “Challenge America” grant

Similarly, NEH recently announced “the first recipients of its new Humanities Access grant [whereby] 34 institutions and organizations will receive a total of $3 million in matching funds [emphasis added] to support humanities programming targeting groups that have historically lacked access to the humanities.” Cognizant of Congressional sensibilities, both agencies have equitably spread their financial support throughout the country.

The Twitter feed of NEA’s Obama-appointed chairman, Jane Chu, has been a travelogue of her encounters with her agency’s constituents all around the U.S. Here’s her latest:

In my Jan. 23 post—Never-Ending Battle: Mobilizing (once again) to Save the National Endowments for the Arts & Humanities—I reported on responses of museums and visual-art organizations—the Association of Art Museum Directors, American Alliance of Museums and College Art Association—to the prospect of possible defunding.

AAM’s representatives will make their case in Washington on Museums Advocacy Day, Feb. 27-28, and members of Americans for the Arts (which has also disseminated a petition) will meet with congressional representatives as part of its Arts Advocacy Day, Mar. 21. The latter organization has manically recommended increasing NEA’s funding from 46 cents to $1 per capita. Most of us will breathe a sigh of relief if 2016’s $148-million appropriation remains intact.

Meanwhile, cultural journalists grasp at straws, hoping that someone who has President Trump‘s ear may persuade him to spare the arts from the ax. Might Ivanka Trump Speak up if Her Father Guts the Arts?, the headline for a recent NY Times piece by Robin Pogrebin asks plaintively. I played that game here, pinning faint hope on Ivanka’s stepmother, the First Lady, who has professed “a passion and penchant” for the arts, and on country singer Lee Greenwood, a member of NEA’s governing council, who performed at the Trump inauguration.

Slide from a presentation by New Museum Director Lisa Phillips at the Oct. 28 National Council on the Arts meeting

And let us not forget the cultural heritage of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, whose father Robert is a well known art dealer and whose stepmother Adriana was a former vice-president of the Whitney Museum’s board of trustees.

Since Trump evinces an affinity for generals, perhaps he should heed the counsel of Colin Powell, who said this back in January 2011, when the arts and humanities budgets were under another of their periodic attacks:

You can’t fix the deficit or the national debt by killing NPR or the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Arts. Nice political chatter, but that doesn’t do it.

To this General Powell added that he didn’t believe that “the defense budget can be made sacrosanct and it can’t be touched”—an argument unlikely to move the current Commander-in-Chief, a staunch proponent of increased military spending.

If quality of life and nourishment of intellect and spirit are as important to our national well-being as military might, then maintaining support for the arts can no longer seem brainless: It’s a no-brainer. Maybe the arts legions descending on Washington this month and next should try to seduce members of Congress with excerpts from performances and art displays that our tax dollars have helped make possible.

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