NEA funding cuts mean more than starving artists in American countryside
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There’s a popular school of thought that says funding for arts programs is frivolous, or even elitist. 

But in a rural state like Wyoming, where I serve as a local elected official and the artistic director of a nonprofit theater, arts funding is critical to ensuring that many underserved populations have access to the arts at all. 

While great art will always be available to those who live in our nation’s big cities, for rural communities this is far from a given.

That’s why I was concerned to learn that President TrumpDonald John TrumpCoast Guard chief: 'Unacceptable' that service members must rely on food pantries, donations amid shutdown Dem lawmaker apologizes after saying it's never been legal in US to force people to work for free Grassley to hold drug pricing hearing MORE’s proposed budget for next year calls for the elimination of a primary funding source for rural arts programs: the National Endowment for the Arts.

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In this year’s spending deal that Congress recently agreed to, NEA funding is safe. But what will happen going forward still remains to be seen, especially given that this administration has made clear its intention to target cultural programs for elimination.

 

We can’t let that happen.

While the NEA represents a tiny slice of the national budget overall, it makes an enormous difference in places like Wyoming. Last year NEA funding supported arts programs in every county in the state, including music education camps, a bluegrass festival, films, orchestras, plays and even a mural.

These arts programs have value — in ways that can be counted, and in ways that can’t.

Financially, the arts can help support and invigorate state and local economies. Between 1995 and 2015, the NEA gave nearly $15 million in funding to arts organizations in Wyoming.

Beyond the dollars that go directly to arts programs, the performances, festivals and screenings that they produce help bolster other small businesses. 

For example, when people come out to a performance at the theater where I work, they often pair it with shopping or dinner, providing a boost to locally-owned small businesses. The arts also bring visitors traveling to festivals, exhibitions and other events, providing remote communities with much-needed revenue.

But even more important is the value these programs provide that can’t easily be quantified. 

Our NEA-funded theater runs an after-school program for young people that exposes them to everything from popular musicals to Shakespeare. 

Theater teaches kids — and adults — skills that are important for their entire lives: flexing their imagination and creativity, speaking in front of an audience, taking on tasks even when they feel daunting or complicated, building the mental capacity to concentrate, having the discipline to rehearse the same scene time and again.

Art also teaches empathy. Oftentimes, you literally have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Now more than ever, we need people to be communicating with and learning from people who are different from them.

In a contentious political climate, art can serve as an important counter-balance to politically-motivated myths, teaching curiosity and cross-cultural understanding instead.

If the National Endowment for the Arts were to be eliminated, the effects would be felt across the country, but the impact in rural communities would be especially pronounced.

As the Wyoming Arts Alliance notes, “New York City spends more public money on arts support than the entire budget of the NEA.”

I believe that everyone deserves access to the arts—not just people in big cities.

If our representatives in Congress recognize that the arts matter just as much in our rural communities as they do on the coasts, they should vote to protect the NEA.

 

Natalia D. Macker is a Teton County Commissioner, a member of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network, and the artistic director of the Off Square Theatre Company in Jackson, Wyo.


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