National Endowment for the Arts is vital to our community | GUEST OP

  • Friday, May 26, 2017 11:49am
  • Opinion

By Ronda Billerbeck, Cultural Programs manager, city of Kent

It was a typical spring afternoon, in a conventional classroom, at my exceedingly ordinary high school, where I had an extraordinary experience that inspired and shaped the rest of my life.

My school’s annual Career Day filled classrooms with doctors, lawyers, accountants and electricians. But this year, somebody different showed up – a screenwriter named Lorraine Williams. She and her husband, Oscar-winning director and producer Elmo Williams, had just retired to my small Oregon town. I was transfixed by how exciting Lorraine was, speaking passionately about the movie industry and writing. She was an artist, talking about art, and it inspired me.

Fast forward 20 years. … I’ve long since moved away from my hometown but my passion for the arts has remained and led me to a career in arts administration, a career that allows me to witness the profound individual, social and economic benefits of the arts on a daily basis.

Communities across America have a stake in the arts, including our own. According to Americans for the Arts, 4.8 million Americans work in arts and culture industries. Additionally, the arts generate $22.3 billion in federal, state and local government revenue.

The major driver of arts initiatives across the country is the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA is the independent federal agency, whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts. Thanks to NEA funding, the Kent Arts Commission has brought artists into classrooms and community settings to teach, lead discussions and build community.

I want to make sure that Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell know that, in Washington, in 2016 alone, the NEA awarded a total of $2.2 million in grant money to 59 nonprofit and governmental arts organizations. These grants worked to enhance access to the arts for all, especially in underserved rural and inner-city areas. Of this NEA funding, more than $800,000 went to Washington State Arts Commission. The state then matched these federal funds and awarded grants to 139 arts organizations in 60 communities across Washington.

The NEA’s goals are fulfilled primarily through direct grants, reviewed and recommended by panels of citizen experts, to arts organizations across the country. NEA grants provide a significant return on investment of federal dollars with $1 of NEA direct funding leveraging up to $9 in private and other public funds, resulting in $500 million in matching support in 2016. Why? Because winning an NEA grant sends a clear message that the grantee is operating an impactful local program of top national quality.

In 2016, the NEA recommended more than 2,400 grants in nearly 16,000 communities in every Congressional District in the country. What’s more, 40 percent of NEA-supported activities take place in high-poverty neighborhoods. Thirty-six percent of NEA grants go to organizations that reach underserved populations such as people with disabilities, people in institutions, and veterans. The NEA has been able to do all these things and more on a meager budget of $148 million.

President Trump’s proposed budget for FY 2018 calls for an elimination of the NEA, among other cultural agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Please don’t believe those dusty, old arguments to eliminate these cultural agencies because it would reduce the deficit or the size of government. We simply cannot afford to cut back on our federal investment in the arts and culture in this country. According to the latest news from U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, the arts and culture contribute 4.23 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. That’s $729 billion per year. It’s one of the very few economic industries that yield a trade surplus of $26 billion and generates 4.8 million American jobs that cannot be outsourced out of the country.

Can we afford to lose the profound impact of the NEA in our state, community and schools?

Ronda Billerbeck is Cultural Programs manager for the city of Kent.

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