No one is sure of anything in these first days of President Trump, but it’s pretty clear one thing is guaranteed:
There’s going to be yet another battle over government funding for the arts.
The new administration reportedly plans to target the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Whether that means complete elimination or budget cuts likely depends on how willing Democrats in Congress are to fight back.
Fresno’s Ann Vermel, a longtime arts administrator and passionate lover of the arts, wrote the following piece on Inauguration Day and was moved to send it to me. In it she offers some background and perspective on the NEA that I hadn’t been aware of, and I told her I’d post it here.
A little more about Vermel: She came to Fresno the first time in August 1959 as the wife of the second conductor of the Fresno Philharmonic. She was a singer and actor and was active in Fresno Community Theatre and the Fresno Musical Club. She got her MA in Acting at Fresno State and took a few writing courses with poet Peter Everwine, which she says changed the direction of her life.
She left Fresno in 1966 and was executive director of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts from 1970 to 1976, and served as a founding vice president of the National Assembly of States Arts Agencies.
Vermel returned to Fresno in 2002. Since then she worked with FCASH (the Fresno Coalition for Arts, Science and History), the Warnor's Theatre, Woodward Shakespeare Festival and the community nonprofit sector. Now she writes grants for four rural school districts.
Here’s her take. She titles it “On Inauguration Day, the Arts Executive Reflects”:
I watched the battles that created the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities. As with any birth, theirs was messy and often painful, and the offspring did not fulfill parental dreams. But there were results, and with each succeeding decade, something creative, interesting and often wonderful resulted.
Today, we face the obliteration of both agencies and their cousin, the Institute of Museum and Library Services as the business mind scans the budget for savings. It seems a good time to look at those early battles to see if they can be of help today.
The reasons for government support of the nation’s arts and humanities have not changed. A practical world power recognizes the value of its cultural traditions and creative energies and assures their well-being. Evidence that integrating the art and humanities into daily life is a powerful force for social and economic good is irrefutable. The arguments protesting against the discontinuance of these programs will be a simple matter; however, what is needed today is a roadmap for action.
I offer up for help a few observations of successful strategies used by the two people whose leadership of the National Endowment for the Arts took it from being a nice effort without much muscle to being today’s key national resource for art and culture. Before becoming the second Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, Nancy Hanks was director of a study of American performing arts organizations for the Rockefeller Foundation that laid the groundwork for decades of policy and programs. Michael Straight, her partner as deputy director of the National Endowment, was an author and old Washington hand. They were a formidable team.
It always comes down to the people in the game
Hanks and Straight understood that success depended on people wanting to join the effort. They surrounded the Endowment with a combination of the best artists in their field and very rich patrons of the arts. They knew that major arts organization boards are peopled with wealthy donors. These people invested time and concern in the arts, and built social lives and prestige around them. Often, they also invested in electing people to office. Their first recruits were people who could speak to power.
Hanks and Straight built on this in several ways. They combed donor and board lists to identify arts patrons across the union. Their formal meetings always had one or more major artists present. Business leaders supporting the arts were encouraged to organize locally and then nationally. When this happened, the Endowment made sure they had resources needed to accomplish real goals. Arts board members joined Endowment staff in presenting budget requests to Congress. A network of spokespersons went everywhere to speak about the value of the arts in the community life.
Hanks and Straight spent their first year at the Endowment meeting every senator and congressman individually to present their program. After that, the members of the Senate Education and Congressional Ways and Means Committees were visited regularly, accompanied by one of their donors involved in some way with the arts. Getting to know staff and the inner workings of congressional offices was part of the job description of senior Endowment staff.
Congress required a significant percentage of federal funds go to the states in the form of block grants. Hanks and Straight created an entire office to build the states arts agencies into strong partnership.
When buying something, people want to understand its value to them
Hanks was a master at getting people to see things her way. She recognized the need for information and for personalizing communication.
Early programming from the Endowment was targeted for maximum visible impact. Thus, the biggest investments were in Arts in Education and State Arts Agencies. These were sacred cows to Congress. Both programs encouraged projects designed to open up the arts to people living in poverty and lack of opportunity, and to foster indigenous art and individual creativity. As soon as the early organizing was in hand, the Endowment made data collection and promotion of regional arts projects a priority.
Whenever a grant was made, the office of its congressional representative was notified; annual reports of data reflecting the year’s activity in their districts were sent out before budget hearings began. All of this was shaped to their best understanding of the priorities of the individual congressman or senator, and demonstrated how the Endowment programs supported those priorities. Tailoring information to the needs of the listener worked.
Strategy without compassion, vision and sincerity doesn’t work
For all their savvy with the political system, Hanks and Straight were motivated by altruism. They loved the arts, and understood the need to protect the free expression of creativity. They were highly cultured, and held artists to high standards of commitment to truth in art and quality of the work. They believed in supporting individual artists’ creativity and in strengthening the institutions that made that possible. They were pragmatic enough to recognize that money and political influence were the requirements of their job, but they never lost sight of the purpose of their work. They fought some pretty tough (and pretty funny) battles with Congress in contentious times. Defending poets and painters as a national interest is not easy, but they never forgot that was what they were there to do.
They saw people as individuals and spoke to them accordingly, and they listened. Making the case for the Arts as a national priority, they heard where you were standing and then carefully led you forward to their point of view.
When Hanks resigned, President Carter appointed a new chairman for the Endowment. In the hearings, it was not possible, nor considered important, to probe candidates for their understanding of the web of the national arts culture and its intangible magic. The times dictated that candidates bring populist priorities to the job. Art was secondary. Hanks and Straight had been too successful. They created a government agency, and the politicians had finally noticed.
Today the fabric of support we have built, however flawed, is about to disappear and we have to build something new. In the 70’s I was privileged to work alongside two people who were The Real Deal. They weren’t perfect, but they never lost sight of the reason for it all -- art, lots of art, art of all kinds. They developed a strategy pragmatic to the core, and they got the job done. Their legacy is a network of arts managers and arts bureaucrats who can rally to the fight today.
It was hard work, but it can be done again. Change will happen; how is up to us.
The fight is less a fight for the $142 million annual budget of the Endowment than it is for national values that must be protected. It is time to step up to that table and make our voices heard. And to take a page from the book of the Endowment builders – be strategic, even craven, but get the job done!
Ann Vermel is a writer living in Fresno, California. She was the Executive Director of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts from 1970 to 1976, and served as a founding Vice President of the National Assembly of States Arts Agencies.