Austin arts nonprofits are bracing for the possibility that the National Endowment for the Arts may get the axe. And once again, they find themselves defending the arts’ very existence.
A draft of President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget eliminated funding completely for The National Endowment of the Arts, a $148 million budget cut. The NEA provides about $1 million a year to the $9 million budget of Texas Commission on the Arts, which in turn sends those dollars to nonprofit art and art education projects across the state. The NEA also sends hundreds of thousands of dollars directly to nonprofits projects in Texas.
While the NEA acknowledged that “the President’s budget request is a first step in a very long budget process,” Austin arts organizations are not taking the threat lightly.
It’s the full-time job of Jennifer Ransom Rice to defend and raise money for the arts in Texas. As executive director of the Texas Cultural Trust, Ransom Rice is used to the politics of arts funding. She recalled a particularly tough budget year in 2011, when the state cut the TCA’s budget in half. Then during the 2015 session, the state granted $5 million for the Cultural District Grants program, which offer competitive grants to support economic development within cultural and fine arts districts. Now in the 2017 session, the legislature is considering a bill to cut that funding for the Cultural District Grants.
“We’ve got whiplash watching it go back and forth,” she said. “It’s like watching a tennis match.”
In the worst case, the combination of the federal government eliminating the NEA and the state eliminating the Cultural District Grants would reduce the TCA operating budget by 43 percent, Ransom Rice said. In 2017, the TCA gave grants to more than 70 Austin-area arts nonprofits.
Ransom Rice said the case for funding the arts could be based on the economic impact alone. The state receives a $343 million return on a relatively small investment — the $9 million in TCA’s budget. “You’re not going to get that in the stock market or the oil business or the cattle industry or any of the other backbones of the state of Texas,” she said.
Also, according to a report by the Texas Cultural Trust, Texas’ arts and culture industry generates $5.5 billion of the state’s economy and contributes nearly $343.7 million in state sales tax revenue annually.
And the arts support a strong workforce. Texas Cultural Trust reports that high school students who complete more than one art class are half as likely to drop out and that almost 1 in 15 Texas workers are employed in creative occupation jobs.
Over the past three years, the NEA has granted more than $100,000 to Forklift Danceworks, an Austin nonprofit that brings dance to underserved populations and unpredictable communities like Austin Energy employees, lifeguards and trash collectors. Krissie Marty, director of education with Forklift, said getting NEA funding is the first step to getting matching funds from other sources.
“There are vital things that we do that the NEA’s funding definitely supports and kickstarts. It’s a piece of the pie, and it’s a really important piece,” Marty said.
“We don’t think of the NEA as a jobs creator, but it really is,” Marty said. “We did an NEA grant for a project, and we were able to look at our fees as artists, but we also hired production staff. (NEA funding) has a really incredible ripple effect.”
Karen LaShelle, executive and artistic director of Creative Action, said while she values grants from the NEA, she’s more concerned about local artists and smaller arts organizations that rely on NEA funding.
“It impacts the whole economy when you start to cut out certain sectors,” LaShelle said. “These are not fluff sectors that can just be eliminated. They are part of the fabric of our entire community.”
Creative Action employs teaching artists to work with more than 20,000 students and young people every year. Though she said she remains hopeful that Creative Action will continue to do its work regardless of what happens with the NEA, losing NEA funding would undoubtedly affect the number of people they serve and the number of people they employ.
Ransom Rice, who worked at the Texas Legislature for more than a decade, said the community can advocate for the funding by calling their elected officials, particularly members of the Senate Finance Committee and the House Appropriations Committee.
“I’m telling you, it counts when constituents call,” Ransom Rice said. “Put in calls, send emails, stop by the office. It has to be a grassroots effort.”
PHOTO: Forklift Danceworks programs Leaps and Bounds receives NEA funding and partners with schools across Austin to bring creative movement to classrooms.