Local arts groups step up advocacy on divergent arts funding proposals

Local and state arts organizations are focusing their advocacy on two divergent policy proposals — one that would end the federal National Endowment for the Arts, and a separate proposal to increase the amount of money the North Carolina Arts Council distributes to counties for arts programs.

The Durham Arts Council has joined other organizations in urging Congress to keep funding for the National Endowment for the Arts after the Trump administration proposed removing it from the federal budget this week. The proposal would end the $148 million the NEA receives. The National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and other Great Society-era programs also would be eliminated.

The Arts Council sent an email asking supporters to lean on their congressional representatives to keep NEA funding.

In North Carolina, the nonprofit group Arts North Carolina is lobbying the General Assembly to increase funding for the North Carolina Arts Council’s “grassroots arts program.” Currently, all 100 counties receive a base of $6,000 in state funding from the N.C. Arts Council, a state agency that is a division of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Other funding is distributed based on county population. Arts North Carolina wants to increase the base funding to all counties to $30,000.

Coincidentally, the NEA and Arts North Carolina proposals happened to fall at the same time as several planned arts advocacy events. Americans for the Arts, a national nonprofit organization, will lead its annual Arts Advocacy Day in Washington Monday and Tuesday. Arts North Carolina will present its annual Arts Day March 28-29 in Raleigh, an event that includes lobbying the state Legislature.

“At this point, we’re breaking all prior registration records,” said Karen Wells, executive director of Arts North Carolina. The Durham Arts Council will send about 25 representatives to the legislative event, said Sherry L. DeVries, executive director of the Durham Arts Council.

“What is most important at this point is grass roots advocacy,” DeVries said of the NEA proposal. Removing NEA funding “would truly be devastating for arts and culture in this country, and locally as well.”

The NEA distributes about $900,000 to the state Arts Council, according to figures DeVries included in the email. In the past two fiscal years, Durham has received $458,000 in NEA funding, DeVries stated. That money helps to support the Kidznotes music education program, the American Dance Festival, the Hip-Hop Initiative at Duke University, and other organizations and programs.

The N.C. Arts Council is not an advocacy organization, but the agency has been getting inquiries and answering questions about the NEA, said Wayne Martin, executive director. “We’ve had a lot of inquiries from across the state. People are very concerned. This funding has a lot of public value ... and they don’t want to see it cut,” Martin said. He mentioned several programs NEA funding is helping to support, among them downtown redevelopment through the arts, arts in schools, and a program at Camp Lejeune that uses arts to help veterans with post traumatic stress and head injuries. Most NEA money that comes through the state Arts Council goes to the counties, and a good portion helps rural counties, he said.

While Arts Day will address the NEA proposal, most of the conference will be focused on increasing state funding, Wells said. While the president’s proposal has created some political drama, “in truth the [federal] budget process hasn’t even started,” she said.

According to Arts North Carolina figures, Durham’s base amount from the state could increase from $59,808 to $118,469. Chatham County’s base funding would increase from $17,991 to $51,449. Orange County’s allocation would increase from $30,330 to $71,226. “We feel very optimistic with our early conversations with legislators,” Wells said of the proposal. “That’s not to say they’re not a little surprised about the audaciousness of the proposal.”

Even if Arts North Carolina’s proposal does not get funded, counties would see an increase in base funding under Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed budget. That budget has about a $2 million expansion in arts funding, Martin said. Of that amount, funding for the grass roots money would increase about $700,000, he said.

Durham uses its state funds primarily for local arts organizations, and would continue to do so if the legislature increases the amount, DeVries said. The Arts North Carolina proposal “would help some of the rural areas that do not have major arts councils or do not have professional staff in place,” she said.

Despite the shock of the Trump administration’s NEA proposal, support for the arts, particularly as an economic development tool, has had diverse support in the state Legislature, Martin said. “Support for the arts has been a very bipartisan thing in North Carolina,” Martin said. Understanding the benefits of the arts “is apparent to a lot of people, regardless of what your political party is, and I think that’s going to stand us in good stead.”

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1