Today, the NEA and NEH strive to honor that aim by bringing funding and programs to all fifty states, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. territories.
State-level administrators are quick to point out the vital role these agencies play.
Kim Konikow, executive director of the North Dakota Council on the Arts, puts it bluntly: “We could not do it without them!”
With a North Dakota State Legislative Assembly that is nearly 85 percent Republican, there is not a lot of support for the arts. But even fiscal conservatives recognize the value in getting the matching federal dollars the NEA offers, so they pony up a minimal amount in every biennium, and the NEA “essentially doubles our budget,” Konikow says.
The Council on the Arts has leveraged this to provide programming to every corner of the state. NEA funding has supported arts projects put forward by the Bhutanese Buddha Society of North Dakota, the Dakota Woodturners Club, the Western Plains Opera Company and others. Likewise the NEA has sustained North Dakota’s popular Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, which matches master practitioners of Finnish weaving, for example, or Mandan/Hidatsa flutemaking, with novices wishing to learn those skills. The Poetry Out Loud and Arts in Education programs serve North Dakota youth.
And with NEA support, the Council piloted an Art for Life Program to improve the emotional and physical health of seniors in North Dakota’s care facilities. That program has since been adopted by elder care facilities throughout the Upper Midwest.
“The NEA generally leaves it up to the state to design their own programs,” Konikow says, “but they’re really interested in building community, building rural partnerships, making sure there’s arts activity happening in smaller communities.”
One thousand miles to the west, Glenda Carino concurs. She is the communications manager for the Washington State Arts Commission (ArtsWA).
The state, home to Microsoft and Amazon, has a number of large metropolitan areas that are blessed with abundant cultural resources and generous donors.
“But as grantmakers, we’re all cognizant of the fact that a lot of the small organizations don’t have the same wherewithal,” Carino says To address the issue, ArtsWA dedicated some money from an NEA partnership grant to put out a call to rural organizations seeking funding for arts projects. For this pilot project, an artisan group in the struggling agricultural burg of Tieton (population 1191, median household income $30,052) was selected to receive the services of a grantmaker who helped them submit a competitive grant for national-level funding. That effort resulted in a prestigious NEA placemaker grant which allowed the town to create a series of mosaic directional signs around town. Building on that success, the group was able to solicit more NEA support as well as private funding for a larger-scale mural series of brightly-colored fruit label mosaics.
These days little Tieton has become a destination, and the mosaic studio, still based there, is working on major projects commissioned by big cities – proof that those initial modest investments in an arts enterprise can wind up having exponential economic benefit.
In Washington State, Carino notes, the creative sector contributes $44.3 billion annually to the state’s economy.
“In the arts, we’re always fighting against the fact that people think arts are just a feel-good thing. When you take a look at it, it’s a sector that works really hard.”
When President Donald Trump entered the White House, he attempted to eliminate NEA funding. It wasn’t the first time the Arts Endowment had been targeted – many times before, Congress had sought to slash the NEA budget, considering the arts a frill, rather than an economic engine with fringe benefits.
But Trump didn’t get far, because he had made the mistake of appointing Mary Anne Carter to head the agency.
When her appointment was first announced, some in the cultural world complained that Carter’s background as a policy adviser to Florida Governor Rick Scott did little to qualify her for the post. When the naysayers learned that Carter said her commitment to the arts had been sparked by seeing how dance lessons had been beneficial for her daughter, they dismissed her as a “dance mom.”
But Carter got to work. She expanded the NEA’s work with the military through the Creative Forces program and explored other ways to connect the arts with healing/well-being initiatives. She promoted vigorous outreach to underserved communities, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Native American tribes.
And she worked to “build the bench” – educating leaders in business and state and local government about the value of the arts, and establishing regular communications with the members of Congress.
Carter’s work paid off. The NEA actually saw modest budget increases during her tenure. And when an amendment was put forward by a conservative member in the House of Representatives to slash NEA funding, the proposal received the scantest support in a decade.
Then when the global pandemic hit, the NEA was entrusted with $75 million in CARES Act funding to give a measure of financial security to America’s arts and culture sectors – it was distributed within weeks. In North Dakota, Konikow was able to use those emergency funds to prop up every single 501c3 organization in the state that provided arts activities.
“Mary Anne Carter was incredible – and well-liked across the aisle,” Konikow says.
But in keeping with tradition as a political appointee, Carter resigned earlier this year so the new administration could fill the top position with an appointee of its own choosing.
With a solid foundation to build on, how will a new director Build Back Better during Biden’s term?
An infusion of more funding, Konikow suggests, because the pandemic has hit the cultural sector hard. Also: continued recognition of the importance of the arts to rural America.
From Washington State, Carino ticks off some further adds to the wish list: ongoing efforts to demonstrate that the arts are not a partisan issue, additional focus on BIPOC outreach and a WPA-type program for the arts.
And what about a Cabinet position for culture?
Carino offers her own spin on the idea: “An arts czar would be a great idea!”
Barbara Lloyd McMichael is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest.