In Vermont, we have a very strong and independent-minded Congressional delegation whose legacy includes being among the staunchest supporters of our tiny Federal Arts Agency. During the darkest days of the early 1990s the Vermont delegation was among the small minority that stood up to the powers trying to eliminate the NEA.
This was not true of the delegations from many other states. Although the NEA’s detractors are diminishing in numbers, there are still quite a few who, despite all our best efforts to educate and inform them, still have residual feelings of ill-will towards the agency, feelings that are even more misplaced now than they were during the worst of the culture wars from 1988 to 1996.
In the decade since it was “punished” by Congress and its appropriation cut 40%, the NEA, like the field it serves, has transformed itself. It no longer simply responds to requests for support from artists and arts organizations, most of which thrive in our major population centers. It actually reaches out and cultivates the arts in all corners of our country. In the last couple of years it has finally made good on its promise to award at least one grant to a constituent in every one of the 435 Congressional districts throughout the country—including the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Marianas, the Virgin Islands, and American Samoa.
More importantly it has built on the “grassroots” legacy of former NEA Chair Bill Ivey and greatly improved its “brand identity” under the leadership of its current Chair, Dana Gioia. As a former brand manager for General Foods (word has it that he was responsible for introducing Bill Cosby to Jell-o Pudding Pops), Gioia has taken the NEA to a new level of participatory art-making and engagement. Projects like Poetry Out Loud, American Masterpieces, and The Big Read have made the arts more accessible to a much broader segment of the American populace than they ever were before. Sure there is probably not as much money going to symphonies, or opera houses as there was in 1992. But then, how could there be? The NEA’s budget is $50 million less now than it was then ($130 million if you factor in inflation)!
But the tide is turning back in the Arts’ favor. The House of Representatives wants to increase the NEA’s budget by $33 million—not because “punishment time” is over, but because the NEA and its network of regional and state partners (which includes the Vermont Arts Council) are, through the arts, making a positive difference in the lives of people throughout the country.
I have a request for everyone reading this column, and especially to those who are from out-of-state.
We need the Senate to follow suit and support the House’s recommendation. Right now the Senate has recommended a $10 million increase. That’s not a bad amount in the context of previous small increases, but it’s nowhere near $33 million. If the House version gets passed it means an increase to state arts agencies of at least $200,000. If the Senate version passes, it’ll mean an increase of about $70,000. I say the House version looks better.
In Vermont, we’re pretty confident that our two Senators understand the importance of supporting the arts in our communities and our lives. But what about the rest of the country?
If you are reading this in Vermont, please do two things. First, contact Senators Leahy and Sanders and politely remind them that you are counting on their support for the House version of the NEA appropriation, but more importantly to thank them for their leadership and support for the NEA over the years. Also, thank Congressman Welch for actually voting for the $33 million increase! Second, please contact everyone you know in other states asking them if they would consider writing a personal email to their Senators to support the House version of the NEA appropriation.
If you are not a Vermont resident and you are reading this, or it has been forwarded to you by a friend who is a Vermonter, please take a moment to contact your Senators and help them to understand just how important the arts are to your life and to your community. It doesn’t matter whether you are in northern Maine or southern California. The arts reach everyone, everywhere, all the time.
Over the years, I have witnessed many conversations on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. One bears repeating. A Congressman (not from Vermont) said, “I walked back to my office and checked to see how the letters were running on this issue. There were a grand total of three: two in favor, one against. I returned to the Chamber and voted in favor stating for the record that my mail was running two-to-one in favor of the bill!”
Your email WILL make a difference, especially if it’s from you and unencumbered by a lot of excess verbiage that our wonderful lobbyists in D.C. like to make sure get included in such messages. All you have to do is say "Please support the House version of the NEA appropriation, because . . ." and then tell your Senators a story about why the arts matter to you or to your community. The more personal the better.
Some need a lot of education, some simply need reminding. Either way, they deserve our personal thanks and best wishes, and our communities deserve more art.