May 26, 2017; The Art Newspaper
Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) survived President Trump’s first attempt at its elimination. In fact, Congress tossed in an extra $2 million for the current fiscal year when it passed a bipartisan agreement last month to keep the federal government operating through September. But the new NEA budget of $150 million—a miniscule fraction of the $4.147 trillion total federal tab—will be at risk again when the 2018 numbers are crunched. Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate 80 percent of NEA funding to “begin shutting down” this staggeringly small U.S. investment in the arts. To understand the ripple effects this disinvestment might have, consider Fergus Falls, Minnesota, population 13,000.
In 2011, Fergus Falls received its first NEA grant, a modest $25,000, which was enough to launch a multi-year cultural project, with the help of St. Paul-based Springboard for the Arts. Importantly, the NEA grant helped to attract additional funding, much of it from private foundations, to the tune of $1.2 million; and the success of the work that has been done in this community—led by artists but in collaboration with the people who live there—has attracted another $120,000 from the NEA since the initial grant.
In 2015, NPQ reported on the impact of arts funding in rural areas, noting that Minnesota seemed to be especially good at cultivating arts-related investments and projects, and citing Fergus Falls as an example.
Here are some examples of what is happening in Fergus Falls since the town received that initial grant:
- Local artists are receiving support, and along with local residents are exploring “how artists can be a part of rural economies and rural communities.”
- Fergus Falls State Hospital, which opened in 1890 and sustained the local economy until it closed in 2005, now houses visiting artists in apartments for one to three months, working in all media, for the Hinge Arts Residency. The artists—many of whom come from urban areas to participate in the program—carry out their own work, but also connect with the local community: they have “shown work in empty storefronts and organized community art projects, such as casting architectural elements of disused buildings, and giving art classes to local children.” Along the way, they are promoting an exchange of ideas and understanding between rural and urban communities and ways of thinking.
- Young people are being encouraged to stay in the town and see it as a viable place to live and work.
- The buildings and campus of the former hospital are now part of a larger conversation in Fergus Falls about “preservation and the use of historic buildings in the town.”
Laura Zabel, executive director of Springboard for the Arts, explains the importance of that initial NEA grant: “The support from the NEA is important on its own merits…but the validation and the recognition that NEA support provides also helped us really leverage private donors to support this work.” She adds that renewed use of the old hospital has created “a sense of possibility around the building, but also a sense of possibility around the whole community.”
So while the NEA budget—if it survives—will still be incredibly modest, those crunching the numbers ought to consider that the stamp of approval that comes with even a small NEA grant can spur additional investments in the arts and in American communities. Those additional funds and the ripple effects they produce in the overall fabric of community life are also at risk if federal funding for the arts is eliminated.—Eileen Cunniffe