The first time the National Endowment for the Arts made a big grant to support a project in rural communities, it was in Wisconsin. Up until the mid-1960s, the NEA had mostly focused its efforts on arts organizations in big cities. But UW-Madison professor Robert Gard helped to change that: His championing of the creative potential of rural America won the attention of Leonard Bernstein and then-First Lady Lady Bird Johnson. In 1966 the NEA made a grant to UW’s Office of Community Arts Development, which helped Gard research and publish a manual called The Arts In The Small Community. The publication aimed to give small towns and rural communities a blueprint for harnessing the power of the arts, and it took as its examples communities including Portage and Rhinelander.
The introductory pages of The Arts In The Small Community strike a few notes that sound eerily familiar in the era of Trumpist populism: Gard points to “the large cities, with their infuriated and burning ghettos,” and asks “Can the United States rediscover, cherish, and strengthen its small communities?” This of course wasn’t a Trump-style appeal to rural resentment—Gard wanted to build a Wisconsin Idea-inspired bridge between the academy and rural America, not gut one and call it a victory for the other—but it’s no small irony that Trump’s administration now wants to eliminate the NEA and its sibling agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities. (Full disclosure: My day job is with Wisconsin Public Radio, part of an organization that has received NEH funding, and proposed changes to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would affect my workplace as well.)
It would still take an act of Congress to sink the NEA and NEH—and it’s not inconceivable that some of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate would oppose it. Still, the stakes for Wisconsin are high. Between fiscal years 2010 and 2016, these two agencies awarded about $31 million in grant money to support arts and culture projects in Wisconsin. The NEH, while the less-talked-about of the two, actually gave a bigger share of that (about $10.6 million) than the NEA ($9 million). (Why is there one for the Arts and one for the Humanities, and how are they different? Here’s an explanation.)
One crucial and unappreciated fact about public funding in the arts is that it’s rarely the entire funding picture. Arts organizations that get public funding have an easier time attracting even more support from foundations and individual and corporate donors. “The federal funds we receive from the NEH leverage about four times that amount in local contributions,” says Dena Wortzel, executive director of the Wisconsin Humanities Council. “WHC grants to community organizations serve as critical seed funds, helping get programs off the ground that might not happen without us.”
The WHC is essentially the state-level satellite of the NEH, and every state has one (as do Washington, DC and five non-state US territories). The bulk of NEH grants in Wisconsin are actually re-grants through WHC. (Fun fact: A former WHC executive director, novelist Dean Bakopoulos, was inspired to write his 2011 novel My American Unhappiness—a dread-laced tale of a man running a federally funded Madison, Wisconsin-based humanities nonprofit and feeling censorship pressure from the Bush Administration—after a frustrating meeting with Wisconsin congressman Jim Sensenbrenner.)
A lot of NEA money is distributed on a similar model, parceled out among the states. In this case, the organization responsible for re-granting it is the Wisconsin Arts Board. Under Gov. Scott Walker’s administration and Republican control of both houses of the Wisconsin legislature, the Arts Board has faced steep funding cuts and even attempts to dissolve it. The difference is showing in the grants it awards to arts agencies around the state. In fiscal year 2015, the Arts Board distributed $1,123,210 in grants, state records show. In 2002, that number was $2,272,963—pre-inflation. Public arts funding in general has taken a dive since the recession, and Wisconsin’s cuts haven’t been the most drastic: Kansas defunded its state arts commission in 2011, though it did later restore some of the funding.
On Friday, Anne Katz of the arts advocacy organization Arts Wisconsin sent out an “action alert” to the organization’s e-mail list stressing the importance of NEA and NEH, but also urging people not to overreact just yet. “It’s wwwaaayyy early in the game when it comes to details and concrete plans,” the email alert said.
Katz, who told me the above anecdote about Robert Gard, said there is reason for optimism. The NEA has gotten better over the years about spreading the benefits to small and rural communities, she says, and it’s survived its share of high-profile culture-war blowups. NEA and NEH have been longtime conservative targets, but Katz doesn’t see arts funding as a partisan issue. She points out that Republican Wisconsin Congressman and House Speaker Paul Ryan’s sister-in-law, Oakleigh Ryan, is on the board of the Janesville Performing Arts Center, which has received public funding through the Wisconsin Arts Board.
“We take things seriously until proven otherwise, and it’s a good chance for us to talk about why the arts are important and public investment is important,” Katz says.
Most discussion of public arts funding gets caught up in arguments over work that offends cultural conservatives or over the supposed elitism of spending taxpayer money on the arts. These issues completely overlook the reality of most projects that NEA and NEH funds. It’s true that the plurality of public arts funding in Wisconsin goes to Milwaukee and Dane Counties, and through large institutions like UW-Madison. But grants since 2010 also show a lot of funding for projects outside those areas: money for an arts summer camp in Shell Lake, artist residencies on the Oneida Nation’s reservation near Green Bay, preservation projects at the Richard I. Bong WWII Heritage Center in Superior, even projects at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo.
Within Wisconsin’s bigger cities, bigger institutions—like the Overture Center or the Milwaukee Public Museum—have received federal funding, but so have scrappier projects. These include NEA support for the “Local/Live” program on Milwaukee independent radio station WMSE, support for Madison Music Makers’ free music lessons for kids, funding for a showcase of work by artists with disabilities in Madison.
NEA funding has been instrumental in a couple of the more exciting cultural developments in the Madison area in recent years. The Farm/Art D’Tour at Fermentation Fest, in an around Reedsburg, has received at least $250,000 in NEA support since 2010, records show. The Madison Public Library’s multi-disciplinary Bubbler program does not currently receive NEA funds, but a high-profile NEA grant in 2013 was crucial to getting the program off the ground, says director Trent Miller.
“We got a $25,000 [from NEA] and the Madison Public Library matched it at $25,000,” Miller says. “This is how we ran the first year of the Bubbler program when the [new Madison Central Library] first opened. This $50,000 paid for everything to get us going—residencies, shows, events, teen programs, etc.”
The Bubbler does still receive money from the federally funded Institute of Museums and Library Services, but it’s not clear if that agency would be on the chopping block in Trump’s budget as well.
Federal arts funding has impacted other city programs, like an NEA grant that supported the planning and design of Madison’s Central Park. The park now hosts a number of annual concerts and festivals, including La Fete De Marquette and Yum Yum Fest, both of which illustrate how arts projects can boost the local economy. City of Madison Arts Administrator stressed that public funding creates more equal access to the arts, and, like Wortzel, that it helps arts organizations attract private funding as well.
“Without the modest funding provided by the NEA and NEH, many relied-upon cultural institutions and non-profit arts organizations will struggle to exist,” Wolf says. “I would find it alarming for the federal government to eliminate these two programs that cost less than [.02] percent of the national budget.”
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to accurately reflect the amount of NEH funding awarded in Wisconsin between 2010 and 2016.
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