Mar 11, 2017

Threat to Federal Arts Funding Worries Local Nonprofits

Reporting Texas

Ben Livingston stands in front of his installation at the Austin School of Film, where some of his paintings and light sculptures are currently on exhibit. He credits a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for launching his career. Austin Price/Reporting Texas

For 16 years, Austin’s Forklift Danceworks has been using large-scale performances to help the city build stronger relationships with its citizens. Trash collectors “danced” with their trucks on an abandoned airport runway. The Huston-Tillotson University Rams baseball team performed professionally choreographed movements to raise money to restore the historic Downs Field on the East Side.

The unorthodox nonprofit is one of 24 local arts entities that received federal money in 2016. But its leaders are worried about their future because of President Trump’s reported plans to slash federal funding for the arts, among many domestic spending cuts, in a budget proposal he’s expected to release in mid-March.

The targets include the National Endowment for the Arts, which was created in 1965 to support excellence in the arts. The agency’s current budget is less than $150 million — approximately .004 percent of the total federal budget. Forty percent of NEA funded programs are in high-poverty neighborhoods, with 33 percent of grants serving low income audiences, according to the agency’s website.

In fiscal 2016, the agency sent grants totaling $763,000 to 20 Central Texas arts organizations and educational institutions, according to a list on its website. The grants ranged from $10,000 to $100,000. The agency has made grants totaling $335,000 so far in fiscal 2017.

The NEA also sends nearly $1 million a year to the Texas Commission on the Arts, which in turn makes grants across the state.

Forklift received $100,000 from the NEA or a three-year project called “My Park, My Pool, My City,” in which it teamed up with the Austin Parks Department and East Side neighborhoods to generate support for a new city master plan to improve access and transportation to public swimming pools. 

Ann Star, Forklift’s managing director, said the project would not be possible without the grant. Sixteen percent of Forklift’s annual budget comes from grants from the NEA and Texas Commission on the Arts.

“We just can’t even comprehend the negative impact that it would have if the entire National Endowments of the Arts and the Humanities ceased to exist,” Star said. “It’s not just art for art’s sake at all. It’s the way that art helps to bring a community together to help strengthen them.”

Grants from the NEA and the TCA make up about 5 percent of the budget of the Austin Classical Guitar Society, which organizes concerts and conducts classes year-round. The society received $45,000 from the NEA this year to fund educational  initiatives, including guitar classes in more than 60 area schools, many of which serve underprivileged students.

Those programs would suffer if the NEA money were reduced or eliminated, said James Fidlon, director of development at the society.

“We have found that our programs really provide something critical to the opportunities in our community whose schools don’t have resources,” Fidlon said. “Our program really becomes the most viable path into the arts for the students there.”

Austin neon artist Ben Livingston credits a $25,000 NEA grant in 1992 for helping launch his career.

He used the money to help develop a phosphorescent minerals palette to illuminate neon tubes. The money allowed him to visit Stanford University to meet with physics professors.

Livingston’s work includes neon installations for the Bass Concert Hall at the University of Texas at Austin, Austin City Limits and the Chicago Botanical Garden.

“It was the essence of all the work I do now in neon. I have sustained myself on this work,” Livingston said. “It wasn’t really the fact that I took rocks and turned [them] into this thing, it was this transformation it’s caused in me,” he said, referring to the NEA grant.

“For me to be able to pass that along it’s like, ‘Wow, there’s a whole new world out there that wants to help you,’ and that’s the inspiration the NEA gives,” Livingston said.

Meghan Wells, manager of the City of Austin Cultural Arts Division, said in an email interview that the bulk of NEA money goes to smaller organizations that rely on multiple funding sources.

“Without this funding and support on a national level, these organizations will be faced with tougher decisions about the scope – or, in some cases, existence — of their artistic mission,” Wells said.

Until the 2018 fiscal year begins in October, state and local art funding agencies are proceeding as usual and waiting to see what happens. Wells said NRA-funded projects help explore deeper connections between the community and arts, going into areas city funding is unable to reach.

“They need artists to be who we are — to be able to come in and ask a lot of questions and think of creative solutions and give people an opportunity to be heard in different ways,” Forklift managing director Star said.

Richard Hartgrove is a longtime arts supporter who was on the board of the ZACH Theater for nine years and head of development for four. He said he is very distressed about the state of arts funding.

“Arts bring color and liveliness to our existence,” he said. “I can’t imagine living in a town that didn’t have a wide variety of arts on offer.”

Hartgrove said that even if organizations reach out to more foundations, it is unlikely that private donors would be able to make up the difference if federal money is cut. People do not like constantly being asked for money, and donors can become fatigued, he said. Hartgrove said the key might be to reach out to new audiences.

“We could do much better,'” he said. “If everyone who supported a nonprofit could bring in one more [supporter], we could do big things,” Hartgrove said. “I am hopeful this [situation] won’t last forever.”

Additional reporting was contributed by Kaulie Lewis.