Keeping art alive takes cash. Since its founding in 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts has supplied money to artists and organizations all over the U.S., the Texan art scene prominent among them. Since 2010, Austin alone has received close to $11 million in NEA grants. Through this number, it's clear to see that the city owes at least part of its reputation as a creative capital to the federal government.
However, now the value of this support is being questioned. A call by President Trump to eliminate the NEA from the federal budget has reopened the controversy around the worth of the arts agency. While Trump does not have final say on the budget, his very proposal for such a cut indicates a shift in the way arts funding is perceived, and, as with so many other issues now on the national stage, his position is being echoed in surprising numbers. That has artists and arts organizations in Austin on high alert.
Ann Starr, managing director of Forklift Danceworks, says that without the NEA, the local dance company simply couldn't exist in its current form. "We're estimating that about 40 to 50 percent of our funding comes either directly from the NEA or from other sources that are funded by the NEA," says Starr. These other sources include the Mid-America Arts Alliance and larger funding sources that wouldn't even consider Forklift as an awardee without the credibility of an NEA grant. "That's why we say our projects wouldn't have happened without them, because it really is true."
Forklift has received four grants from the NEA since it staged its first show in 2001 – evidence that the agency has repeatedly found value in the company's mission of revealing art in everyday movement. Founder Allison Orr, along with associate choreographer Krissie Marty, craft Forklift productions to show the motions of people in their everyday work as dance – whether the subjects are gondoliers or trash collectors, baseball players or electrical linemen (the last two being groups that have benefited directly from NEA grants).
"It's about everybody having access to art," says Starr. "It's more important than ever to build a true sense of community and help people see and appreciate others that are different to them." The dances, and the conversations they provoke, allow Forklift to bridge gaps of understanding in people of different classes, races, or experiences.
Case in point: the new collaboration between Forklift and the city of Austin titled My Park, My Pool, My City, which seeks to strengthen relationships between Austin's citizens and the city, especially in the underserved communities of East Austin. The three-year project will begin this summer at Bartholomew Pool – the first historically integrated pool in Austin – then move to two other Eastside pools in subsequent summers. In each setting, pool users, neighborhood residents, community leaders, and staff members of the city's Parks and Recreation Department will develop a dance performance and engage in dialogue around equity issues, fiscal challenges, and Austin's aquatics system. "Everybody's ready to talk when they see a performance," says Starr. An NEA grant will provide $100,000, which will cover about a third of the project's estimated costs.
Forklift is far from the only local NEA grantee that has seen its work in both artistic and political dialogues. Sam Sax, a former fellow at the Michener Center for Writers and a recipient of an NEA individual artist grant, appeared in national news stories for attending a poetry vigil in New York. The event on March 15 protested the possible elimination of the NEA and called for working poets to read outside of Trump Tower.
Sax credits his individual artist grant of $25,000 in 2015 with giving him the confidence to begin work on a novel and finish two books of poetry – one of which is being released by Penguin this fall. "I've seen [the NEA] transform people's lives and allow people to quit their shitty day jobs and just focus on their writing," he says.
However, even those who haven't received an NEA grant fear the agency being shut down. At the New York vigil, Sax was the only artist who had been directly funded by the NEA, but standing with him were many who recognized the far-reaching consequences of its elimination. "It's like an ecology," Sax says. "If you remove one species, what in the food chain dies, what other predatory animals are allowed to thrive? It seems like neo-fascist, right-wing conservative predatory animals."
The NEA has been threatened with elimination before, but to those whose funding is at stake, this time feels different. The editors of American Short Fiction, an acclaimed literary magazine based in Austin, feel particularly unsettled as they await news on their recent grant proposal to the NEA. Co-editors Adeena Reitberger and Rebecca Markovits sought funding for a special issue devoted to emerging writers. But instead of celebrating the possibility of the project, they feel anxious over its prospects. "We're in an unprecedented situation with this administration," says Markovits. "It's a lot less predictable and a lot less rational than in the past."
Moreover, notes Francie Ostrower, a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the UT College of Fine Arts, the nature of the current attacks against the endowment set this assault apart from its predecessors. In the past, "the debates over cutting were often dominated by controversies over what the NEA funds. This time around, arguments are being made that there is no rationale for government to fund the NEA at all."
While federal money is not the only means of government funding available to artists and arts organizations, the NEA as a federal agency also remains intimately tied with appropriations on the state level. "In order to receive NEA funds," Ostrower says, "state legislatures have to match the National Endowment for the Arts appropriations. If the NEA funding is cut, it's reasonable to say that state legislative matching funds in some states might also be affected." In addition, state agencies that provide arts funding may receive funding directly from the NEA. The Texas Commission on the Arts generally receives 10-13% of its $9.3 million budget from the federal agency.
While the current political climate might lead some friends of the arts to assume the worst about the future of public funding, Anina Moore, director of communications at the TCA, believes in the power of the arts to span the aisle. "The NEA has made an impact in every legislative district in the nation," she says. "That means there is some bipartisan support for them already. It's just a matter of seeing where that process goes."
However, when pressed on the possibility of the NEA actually disappearing, Moore says, "It may just mean a contracting of our budget." The TCA is hesitant to go after private funding, even if that could supply it with more cash, because it would put the agency in competition with many of the organizations it seeks to help with its grants. That means no replacement for the federal funding that goes away, and the loss of cultural programs for many of the Texans who need them the most. "A lot of the NEA dollars that we use is targeted for rural communities, people with disabilities, senior citizens, ethnically minority organizations. We're using those dollars a lot of the time to serve underserved communities," Moore says. "Some of the stories that we get back from them make us feel like it's the only way that something like that could have happened in a community."
For most of the organizations and artists mentioned here, only the most radical of retroactive budget cuts would affect their current projects, but the fear for future projects and future artists remains. They're quick to discount the myth, perpetuated by opponents of public funding, that private donors would step in and replace the money lost by the NEA's elimination. "The thing is, we need private donors to step up either way," says ASF's Reitberger. "We can't be held up, whether it's our literary magazine or a different one, by one organization. The NEA is not enough on its own; private donors are not enough on their own."
Reitberger's emphasis on working as a collective underscores the true beauty of the arts: They bring people together in unique and unpredictable ways. Cutting the NEA would be a tragedy not just for those who love art, but also for those who appreciate progressive change in our city. Speaking of Forklift's East Austin pool project, Starr says, "The issues that the dance will raise can absolutely affect city policy. Which, when you think about that, it's like, 'Oh my gosh, we're artists, and we get to influence public policy,' but it's true. We're trying to be this trusted, trusting partner for all parties, so we can make sure people's voices are heard, and they're aware of the complexity of the issues."
The arts, whether creating content, empathy, or discussion (but mostly all three), have been a point of pride in Austin throughout its history, and part of the city's legacy. Should the NEA be cut, the foundation of that legacy – because of the funding of that legacy – would change dramatically, as the people of Austin who make its art scramble to pick up the bill.
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