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?

More funding info for schools now online

In response to feedback from our school partners throughout the state, Young Audiences has expanded the resources available on its website for schools and community organizations looking for additional funding opportunities to bring valuable arts experiences to Maryland students.

In preparation for our five-year strategic planning process, Young Audiences conducted community interviews with leaders in education, arts and culture, philanthropy, business, government, and higher education. We also surveyed our current school and community organization partners, as well as those schools we have not partnered with in recent years. These surveys and interviews helped us understand what thought leaders in our field see as the biggest challenges in education and how our community views the role of the arts, artists, and Young Audiences in the education of our children.

Here were some key findings:

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More than three-quarters of our surveyed partners said they would like to increase the amount of Young Audiences programming in their schools! Our school partners are also more aware of the array of arts-integrated programs Young Audiences offers, such as professional development workshops for educators.

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While both partners and non-partners alike believe in the importance of arts-in-education programs, many schools said that barriers to the arts still exist–the most prohibitive being cuts to school budgets. Half of the surveyed schools noted that their discretionary funds for arts/cultural programs from outside providers have decreased. Many of our partners suggested that Young Audiences offer additional grant opportunity information, so we have compiled an even more comprehensive list of grants and resources for schools. Visit our website to take a look!

Despite these financial obstacles, we found a promising consensus that the arts play an important role in the education of Maryland students and in meeting educational priorities.

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Young Audiences partners with several generous individuals and foundations to make our programs accessible. While many of our donors have specific sites that they wish to sponsor, if you are in need of funding to bring one of our programs to your area, please contact us at 410-837-7577. We may be able to help.