Waters: Arts funding builds community, not walls
This article originally appeared in the Commercial Appeal
I sent the federal government 50 cents last year to support the National Endowment for the Arts. They took it out of my taxes.
I definitely got my money's worth, especially compared to the $5 they took for Egypt and the $56 they took for NASA.
I've never been to Egypt or the moon.
A fraction of my half-dollar that went to the NEA came back to support those and other local arts organizations.
Now the Trump Administration is considering using that half-dollar to beef up national security.
The President has walls to build.
It's not quite that simple, but the new administration is looking for ways to cut discretionary federal funding so it can dramatically increase spending on national security. That includes building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.
The NEA is on a list of discretionary federal programs being considered for deep cuts or elimination.
For my fellow math-challenged taxpayers, that amounts to three pennies for every $1,000.
It's not enough to add a speed bump along the Mexican border, let alone build a multi-billion-dollar, 1,000-mile, 50-feet-high concrete wall.
It is enough to build a lot of bridges.
The NEA is the largest single funder of the arts across America, but its $150 million annual budget is a drop in the bucket compared to the $16 billion we spend on immigration and border enforcement, and a drop in the Mississippi River compared to the more than $500 billion we spend on the military.
Should the federal government be a patron of the arts? That's debatable. But it's hard to argue that it's not money well spent.
The NEA is “probably one of the cheapest economic development programs the United States has," Dana Gioia said last week in a public radio interview.. Gioia, a poet, was head of the NEA during the George W. Bush administration.
The NEA's annual budget also represents a sliver of what customers, foundations and corporations spend to support the arts. Nonprofit arts organizations get about 1 percent of their annual revenue from the federal government.
It's a powerful 1 percent. For every $1 the NEA awards, arts groups raise $9 in other funds.
"It's leverage," said Elizabeth Rouse, president and CEO of ArtsMemphis."Any amount of NEA funding gives your organization credibility. It's a sort of stamp-of-approval that draws the attention of other funders."
Last year, ArtsMemphis awarded and administered $3 million in grants to 68 local arts organizations and 21 artists. Nonprofit arts organizations generated $125 million in local spending.
The NEA has supported numerous local arts organizations, directly or indirectly via ArtsMemphis and the Tennessee Arts Commission. Over the past two years, about $200,000 in NEA support went directly to Shelby County organizations.
For example, the NEA supports New Ballet Ensemble’s dance program at Dunbar Elementary.
It also supports Opera Memphis’ free "30 Days of Opera" program across the city.
Next month, NEA grants will help Hattiloo Theatre and several other local venues host the National Black Box Performing Arts Festival. The three-day festival will showcase the work of African-American and Latino artists.
The Blues City Cultural Center hopes to use its $10,000 NEA grant to expand its arts program for homeless women.
Sew Much Love gives homeless women in Memphis a safe place to gather during the day when most shelters are closed.
"This program reconnected me to the community. It probably saved my life," said Asa Daniels, a once-homeless woman who credits Sew Much Love with helping her find a job and a purpose. "When women leave those shelters every morning, they become targets."
The program is more than a day shelter. It gives homeless women an opportunity to create, collaborate and dream.
Twenty homeless women spend two or three days a week at the center making dolls, quilts, wall hangings and other works of art.
They have lunch. They also learn how to market and sell their products and to generate income that can help them become independent.
"We use the arts not only to engage but also to empower," said Deborah Frazier, who with her husband, Levi, founded the Blues City Cultural Center in 1979.
"This program helps women gain confidence in their own abilities to support themselves, and to work with and support each other."
The NEA-supported program does more than create beautiful fabric art. It strengthens the community's social fabric.
For a half-dollar a year, that's quite a bargain.