Arts Budgets, Job Creation, and the NEA

Written by Barbara Krebs, a Young Audiences volunteer and Sunburst Society member

With all the talk of entirely eliminating funding for organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) from the federal budget, a recent Washington Post Magazine article caught my attention. The June 11, 2017 issue featured a boldly colored cover and the caption, “Is Arts Funding Essential or Wasteful? We traveled the country to find out.”

I was especially intrigued since one of the arts projects they highlighted was in Wilson, NC – where I lived as a teenager. I admit that I haven’t been back in many years, but I had heard from friends that the town had fallen on hard times as tobacco warehouses (once the backbone of the economy) closed down.

The article opened with the development of Whirligig Park, which is dedicated to the artwork created by Vollis Simpson, who fashioned giant whirligigs out of scrap metal that he collected from his day job of transporting houses and heavy machinery. Before his death in 2013, Simpson had gained quite a following; the man and his artwork had been featured in publications that range from The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, and the Smithsonian Magazine, among many.

As I read the Post article, it highlighted how the NEA had been “an early believer in the civic power of Simpson’s creations.” With the help of the organization and its grants, locals also began seeing the possibilities – to draw tourists and their dollars to Wilson – and skeptics gradually became believers. People who had originally viewed Simpson’s whirligigs as junk now began to see how the arts could help revitalize a moribund downtown.

But just as all politics is local, so too are the arts.  You focus on where you live.  With that in mind, a quick check of the NEA web site revealed that in the Fall of 2016, 19 grants, totaling $520,000, were awarded to a variety of Maryland arts groups. And while these groups range widely in mission and artistic focus, two things stood out:  1) how many of these groups reach out with the arts to educate and 2) these NEA grants create much-needed jobs.

Over the years NEA support has made it possible for Young Audiences to reach children in every county in our state…

Under the education category, award recipients include the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids program, which provides Baltimore City Public School students with a music and mentorship program; Wide Angle Youth Media, Inc., which teaches students how to share their voices through media arts education; The National Association of Black Storytellers, Inc., whose Adopt-A-Teller Program places African American storytellers in schools for performances and workshops to share and preserve the rich heritage of the African Oral Tradition; Arts on the Block (AOB) who provides teens in and around Montgomery County real-world work experiences through the arts; and World Arts Focus in Mount Rainier, for a program developed improve the health, identity, and independence of teenagers and adults with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, or other disabilities through dance.

Over the years NEA support has made it possible for Young Audiences to reach children in every county in our state and has provided consistent support for teaching artist training, ensuring that our programs are not only accessible and affordable to underserved students, but are of high quality and enhance the curriculum of our schools.

What about the job creation category?  Here are a few thoughts on the economic impact of the arts in our communities.

  • Employment opportunities – we’re not just talking artists and dancers here. The arts also employ carpenters, electricians and many other technical and administrative jobs needed to produce showcases, exhibitions and museum presentations.
  • Arts education – at Young Audiences we see every day, firsthand, what a huge impact the arts have in helping students connect to reading, math, and science. Educated youth become educated adults with jobs that create a tax base.
  • Tourism – Many struggling small towns, and even larger cities, have boosted the local economy by creating arts zones, which draw in tourists, which, in turn, creates the need for restaurants, hotels, and other tourist-oriented businesses.

So what lesson can we take from all this? I think it is simply that the arts do matter – a lot.  The arts help create and maintain vibrant community ties, which in turn translates into real economic impact. Before the Post Magazine article caught my eye, I had read an article in the April 2017 issue of Our State, Celebrating North Carolina. I read about 217 Brew Works, which opened last November, hmm, across the street from Whirligig Park.  Tourists certainly enjoy the proximity of the brewery to the park, but more importantly, locals are the true economic boosters – coming down to talk, to relax and to enjoy their community’s new meeting spot.

It’s also worth noting that when the arts are supported, great synergies are created. For example the Our State article ended with, “another developer has moved forward with plans to create Whirligig Station – apartments, restaurants, and some office space – in an empty red-brick tobacco warehouse on another edge of the park.”

Far from being an unnecessary frill as some critics of the NEA portray it, what is readily apparent is how many small communities discovered an economic lifeline from the grants that the NEA provides. The closed factory, the shuttered mill, the abandoned plant are sadly a fact of life in too many small towns.   But as many of them have discovered, there are opportunities here as well. Who knows what might happen in your community when you combine artistic vision, a good beer, and an NEA grant?

In Memoriam: Beth Braden


By Jason A. Dykstra, Director of Accountability & Testing, Instructional Data Division, Anne Arundel County Public Schools, and Former Principal of Southern Middle School

On April 30, 2014, Beth Braden, an outstanding educator, champion of arts integration, mentor to teaching artists, and great friend to Young Audiences, passed away. Thank you, Beth, for your passion, energy, and commitment to providing an arts-rich education to all students. Your legacy will continue through the many teachers, artists, and students you have influenced. You will be greatly missed.

“Hi Boss!” That was the typical greeting I would get at any given moment by Beth Braden during my five years as principal of Southern Middle School. She would have a smile on her face, a spring in her step, and she would simply move on with whatever she was busy doing at the time. That greeting, as it turned out, was more than a “Hi.” It was a sign of confidence that we are going to have a good day—that we are getting the job done—and that we are making a difference today. All in that one little phrase: “Hi Boss.” I think it was the way she said it that made me understand.

Of course, I am not sure that I realized that until after I had been working with Ms. Braden for a year and learned how special she was. For those who have had the amazing pleasure of working with Ms. Braden, we saw first-hand her passion for teaching, her love of students, and her dedication to making a difference every day. It would be unforgivable to forget her unwavering advocacy of arts integration. It was actually hard to have a conversation with Ms. Braden where she would not find a way to mention how the arts could help students. Even discussing eighth grade discipline referrals, she would remind us that more exposure to the arts would help those students. That’s it—we need more assemblies and experiences!

How do we possibly measure Ms. Braden’s contributions and importance to Southern Middle? Not only can it not be measured, her influence will live on at Southern Middle School for years to come. Her school spirit and commitment to the cultural arts will be remembered by all. Did I really have a choice but to agree to a slam poetry assembly? Ms. Braden reassured me that not only would the assembly go well, but our students would really benefit from the experience. It was no surprise that she was right on both points.

We all have very special memories with Beth Braden—whether it is amazing improv performances by the Drama Club & Zip Zap Zop, steel drums, African dance, field trips, dressing up for spirit days and Halloween, celebrating Dr. Seuss’ birthday and Emily Dickinson, lively classroom debates, Artful Thinking activities, cool projects, and, most importantly, seeing all of the arts showcased at the largest and best cultural arts event at the middle school level—The Arts Are Everywhere Gala. Those traditions will no doubt continue and we can thank Beth Braden for teaching us the value of the arts and how new and different experiences enhance our lives.

What makes Beth Braden truly special and unique, however, was her work in the classroom. Every day was 100%. Every day was an opportunity to reach a student. Every day was a chance to make a connection. Every day was designed to be a success. The result? Every day was the epitome of trying to make a difference. At times it could seem unconventional, but she never lost hope and was always willing to give a student another chance to be successful and they respected Ms. Braden for it. The biggest compliment I could possibly give is that I would have loved for both of my children to have had Beth Braden as their teacher. The great news is that thousands of students did have the opportunity to benefit from her passion, creativity, knowledge, and many talents. In addition, we got to work side-by-side with a fantastic educator. We were all very fortunate and we know it!

Both in and out of the classroom, Ms. Braden really just wanted her students to think outside of their box, to explore themselves through reading, writing, and the arts, and to communicate well-thought-out ideas and opinions. What would Ms. Braden want from us today? For us to think out of the box about the potential of our amazing profession, to explore more ways to create positive change in school, and to communicate all of our great ideas and opinions with each other. That is an easy and wonderful way to honor Beth Braden and her many contributions to education and our lives.

Sometimes we don’t have to say much to make a difference in a person’s life—“Hi Boss”—it was just the way she said it that made me understand. So thanks to you Ms. Braden—we are going to have many good days, we are going to get the job done, and there is no doubt that we are going to make a difference! “You Rock!”

Watch a short video that features Beth explaining why the arts are critical in every classroom.