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Arts groups mobilize to save federal funding

“There seems to be a disregard for free speech.”

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In December, City of Asylum/Pittsburgh received a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was a big honor: The NEH awards only a few dozen grants annually. City of Asylum shelters writers persecuted in their home countries; the NEH funds would support the nonprofit’s literary readings and other programs promoting diversity and appreciation for other cultures. All COAP had to do, says group president Henry Reese, was raise $100,000 in matching funds, half by April 20, the other half by next April.

That all changed in January, as word came in media outlets including The New York Times that the Trump administration wants to eliminate the NEH — along with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Reese says he’s been advised that if COAP wants to ensure its grant, it must raise all $100,000 in matching funds by April 20. Suddenly, instead of 15 months, its deadline was 15 weeks.

COAP and the rest of the nation’s arts community are scrambling to defend federal arts funding. Groups like the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council have joined advocacy organization Americans for the Arts in imploring supporters to sign its petition, contact elected officials and take other actions to safeguard federal dollars. GPAC initiatives include a Thu., March 2, public meeting called Federal Arts Policy: A Time for Action!

From 2014-16, in Pittsburgh alone, the NEA distributed $1.4 million to about 30 recipients, for projects at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, City Theatre, MCG Jazz, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Mattress Factory and elsewhere. The biggest single grant was $200,000 for a Pittsburgh Office of Public Art program supporting artist residencies for groups working with refugees and immigrants.

Conservatives began attacking the NEA in the 1980s over funding of controversial art like Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” photo. The NEA’s inflation-corrected funding levels are now about half of what they were in 1992, according to Americans for the Arts. Still, today, says the NEA, its grants are distributed in every U.S. congressional district; 40 percent of the activities it funds take place in high-poverty neighborhoods; and many serve people with disabilities, people in institutions and veterans.

The NEA and NEH each gets $148 million in funding, for a total of $296 million, or .008 percent of the federal budget. NEA funding is much less than state or local funding for the arts, and all three government sources together constitute just 7 percent of revenue for nonprofit arts groups, according to NEA figures; 61 percent of total revenue comes from either earned income or individual giving. But supporters say that groups who meet the NEA’s rigorous grantmaking standards are more likely to receive funding from other sources. American for the Arts’ Narric Rome adds that most NEA grants require matching funds, and that each NEA dollar creates an additional $9 in nonfederal spending — i.e., economic development.

But critics of the expected budget axe say that this fight isn’t really about tax dollars. Some conservatives are still waging the 1990s “culture wars.” Others seem to simply loathe the idea of funding expression they might disagree with. “There seems to be a disregard for free speech, [for why] the arts matter, and what they promulgate,” says COAP’s Reese.

“We already know that what we need more of in this country, rather than less, is art that helps us understand each other,” says Grant Oliphant, president of the Heinz Endowments, itself a major local arts funder. “Cutting the arts right now is precisely the wrong move.”


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