Boston arts leaders signal alarm over possible federal cuts
The heads of Boston’s largest art museums have joined a wave of local arts leaders arguing for the importance of federal funding after recent reports that the White House could be seeking to ax the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
On Friday, the directors of five major local art museums issued a joint open letter signaling their alarm. “During this moment of heightened national discord, the elimination of the NEA and NEH is not a cut our country can afford,” they wrote.
The letter, signed by directors of the Museum of Fine Arts, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Harvard Art Museums, and MIT List Visual Arts Center, called federal support “a critical piece of the puzzle for museums.”
“Art is, at its best, a dialogue,” they wrote. “We hope that you’ll participate in the conversation about the importance of federal funding for the arts and join us as stewards of the public good.”
The letter is part of a broader effort by area arts leaders. The arts advocacy group MASSCreative is marshaling support for two arts advocacy days next month. Meanwhile the New England Foundation for the Arts is lobbying on Capitol Hill and enlisting board members to speak with people close to the Trump administration.
“There is too much at stake here,” said Cathy Edwards, executive director of the New England Foundation for the Arts. “The cultural sector is a major employer. Arts jobs are real jobs, and to pull back on this sector of the economy now just makes no sense.”
Although the NEA’s $147.9 million budget is relatively minuscule (representing just 0.004 percent of the federal budget), arts leaders say those funds have an outsize impact, generating roughly $500 million in matching support.
Edwards said that every NEA dollar is matched by an additional $9 in public and private funds. Citing a 2011 NEFA study that found the New England cultural sector generates roughly $8 billion in revenue, she said, “This really small federal investment in the arts leverages a tremendous amount in terms of employment and business assets in our region.”
In Massachusetts, the NEA provided nearly $920,000 in fiscal year 2016 to the Massachusetts Cultural Council for grants and services. That’s in addition to the roughly $2.7 million the endowment made in direct grants to arts groups, and the roughly $1 million it provided the New England Foundation for the Arts.
Anita Walker, executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, said NEA grants are essential to many of the estimated 62,000 Bay Staters who work in the arts for another reason, as well.
“When the NEA makes a grant to an artist or an organization in Massachusetts, that gives confidence to other donors or investors,” said Walker. “When they know that an artist or an organization has been funded by the MCC or the NEA they are much more likely to make a contribution.”
Matthew Wilson, executive director of MASSCreative, said the group was coordinating with the national arts advocacy group Americans for the Arts, about an advocacy day in Washington, D.C., on March 21 and is coordinating a similar effort locally on March 28.
“The entire community is working together to figure out what a coordinated plan will be on this,” said Wilson, adding that the group may also initiate a petition or letter-writing campaign. “We’re looking for direction from our colleagues in D.C. about timing and the extent of what the president’s proposal will be. We want to make sure that we’re focused and thoughtful in our response.”
Several arts groups, including ArtsEmerson, World Music/CRASHarts, said they planned to participate in the upcoming advocacy days, which will include marches and lobbying politicians about the importance of arts funding.
Members of the New England congressional delegation have expressed sympathy to the cause. Earlier this month New England senators Bernie Sanders, Maggie Hassan, Jack Reed, and Patrick Leahy joined other senators in a joint-letter to President Trump voicing their support for the NEA and NEH.
NEFA’s Edwards said she was in Washington recently, where she met with aides to Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine, Senator Leahy of Vermont, and Senator Reed of Rhode Island, all of whom sit on appropriations subcommittees that handle the NEA budget.
“They are all very supportive of the arts, and we can count on them being advocates,” said Edwards. “But it’s important that they hear and understand from their constituents what the impact of federal support is in New England.”
Several arts leaders noted that a few people in or near the Trump administration appear sympathetic to the arts. They include Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whose son created Michigan’s ArtPrize; Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, who previously sat on the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and second lady Karen Pence, a watercolorist who has expressed interest in art therapy.
“Our board is reaching out to individuals they know who we think can provide meaningful advice to the Trump team,” said Edwards, who declined to specify whom they were contacting. “We’re trying to engage some important behind-the-scenes conversations.”
The best-case scenario, she said, would be to persuade the Trump administration to preserve the agencies in the upcoming budget.
“Everybody’s hope is that the president’s first budget will not zero out the arts,” she said. “It’s not all over if the NEA is not in the president’s first budget draft, but it will make things a lot harder.
List director Paul Ha put the matter more starkly.
“Do we want a nation that supports culture and the arts, or do we want one that doesn’t?” he said by phone on Friday. “When you think about what lasts in a society, it’s art, culture, and architecture, and the thought of being a part of generation that doesn’t want to support that — it would be a huge loss.”