For the past month, the arts world has been in an uproar, wondering whether President Donald Trump will slash federal arts funding.
Madison’s arts leaders are watching closely and preparing for the worst. “It could be very destabilizing, and I predict that many local arts organizations will not be able to survive it,” says Karin Wolf, administrator of the Madison Arts Commission.
On Jan. 12, The Hill, a website and Washington, D.C., newspaper, reported that the new administration was planning to privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The article was quickly taken up by other press and circulated widely on social media. Americans for the Arts, a national advocacy nonprofit, immediately sent action alerts to members and began circulating a petition. “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best, but I don’t think there’s reason to panic to the level that some are panicking already,” says George Tzougros, executive director of the Wisconsin Arts Board, which receives half its budget from the NEA.
“Needless to say, it makes the arts community nervous,” he adds. “However, we’ve got to remember that there’s a long, democratic process ahead, where the president will have to offer a budget and the Congress will have to deal with that, and the people will have their say.”
The NEA is an endowment in name only; the grants it awards are not drawn from interest on any principal. Its annual budget is $148 million, a comparatively minuscule part of the $4 trillion federal budget. The combined budgets of the NEH and NEA account for about .002 percent of federal discretionary spending.
In the last decade, at least 10 city nonprofits have received direct support from the NEA, including the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Forward Theater, Madison Symphony, YMCA and Madison Children’s Museum.
The NEA also provides $800,000 to the Wisconsin Arts Board. The board then grants funds to artists, organizations and local arts commissions.
Wolf says the Madison Arts Commission has received more than $100,000 in grants from the Wisconsin Arts Board in the last decade. The commission’s annual grant budget is roughly $67,000, $10,000 of which comes from the arts board.
The city also receives direct funding from the NEA through competitive grants. For example, NEA dollars helped launch the Madison Public Library’s popular Bubbler program, and the hiring of environmental artist Lorna Jordan, who helped design Central Park.
Wolf says any NEA cuts will also “affect the local arts ecology in general.”
Federal arts dollars jump-start a leverage chain, because the state is required to match NEA funds. In addition, the cachet of NEA grants allows organizations to more easily find additional matches from individuals and the private sector. “Having the imprimatur of the NEA helps leverage other funding by stating that the work we are doing is artistically important and worthy of support,” says Madison Opera general director Kathryn Smith.
Even relatively small grants can have a big impact. In its current fiscal year, the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters received $10,000 from the NEA, $7150 from the Wisconsin Humanities Council and $2,000 from the Wisconsin Arts Board.
Jane Elder, academy executive director, says the federal grants make up 18 percent of the group’s annual $106,000 gallery program budget. “That’s big for us, given how lean our operations are.”
The existence of the Arts Board could even be at risk. During Gov. Scott Walker’s first term, state aid to the arts was deeply cut, from $2.4 million to $759,000 — just enough to match (and keep) NEA dollars. Without those federal funds, the governor and Legislature might be motivated to cut arts support altogether.
“I couldn’t imagine there would not be plenty of ideas about that on the table,” says Anne Katz, executive director of Arts Wisconsin. “The governor of Mississippi has already forwarded a proposal to get rid of their arts commission.”
Katz says she is especially concerned about access to the arts; the NEA estimates that 40 percent of its activities occur in high-poverty areas. “The money that the Arts Board gives out, and the NEA gives out, and the city and the county, is all about helping people participate in the arts,” she says.
As President Trump is distracted by other matters, Tzougros remains concerned but not panicked. He’s even created an office poster: “Keep Calm and Create On.”