The White House released its new federal budget outline a month ago and sparked alarm. In the cultural realm, the proposal — tagged a “skinny” budget — is seen as downright anorexic.
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) would be axed altogether. Each of the 52-year-old agencies received roughly $148 million in the last budget.
The 50-year-old Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be privatized. Current appropriations are $445 million annually.
NEA money arrives in Mobile mostly through block grants given to the Alabama State Council on the Arts (ASCA). According to ASCA Director Al Head, this funding constituted 16 percent of its $4.7 million annual budget, with the rest coming from appropriations.
“That’s not counting the fact it is matched at the local level by a combination of businesses and private contributions and in some cases local government. Our grant monies we allocate are matched at a rate of about 7-to-1,” Head said.
Head and others described the government funds as seed money that prompts further private participation. The nod of approval is vital.
“Even as far as private donations, they’re inseparable because the city or county in which you reside, if they don’t seem to be having any interest in supporting the arts then neither does the chamber or business community, because they tend to take their lead from government,” Mobile Opera Director Scott Wright said.
Wright said Mobile Opera receives about $10,000 to $20,000 annually — “It’s different every year” — from ASCA. Their entire annual budget is roughly $400,000.
“Often [private support or foundations] feel there’s more burden and they don’t want to be left holding the bag or supporting something entirely. So if there’s a withdrawal of government support of any kind, often it’s followed by a withdrawal or reduction in private support,” Mobile Museum of Art Director Deborah Velders said.
Mobile Symphony Orchestra runs on a $1.8 million budget. Last year, $52,400 of that was from the ASCA.
“We don’t have anything else that consistent on the operating side,” MSO Director Celia Mann Baehr said. “The city does give us another $20,000. Then there’s the state license tag grant that is $3,000 or so every few years.”
Baehr said there’s another $10,000 from the county that comes through Mobile Arts Council. She also listed private funding from sources including Wind Creek Casinos, Alabama Power, Regions Bank, Volkert Inc. and the Daniel, Bedsole and Larkins foundations.
“[Bedsole Foundation Director] Chris Lee has said when the cuts from the city emerged, their requests increased exponentially. That has spread out across the businesses and individuals,” Baehr said in reference to previous public-sector crunches.
Baehr also named programs MSO utilizes, such as composers-in-residence or The League of American Orchestras, which exist because of NEA funding. Federal money has also bolstered MSO education programs.
ASCA said Alabama is 19th in per capita funding for state arts agencies. The Washington Post estimated 54 percent of NEA block grants go to low-income areas, which is a lot of rural Alabama.
“It gives us the opportunity to go into schools and communities that are very much underserved, where they don’t have a lot of other dollars. They don’t have access to as many private resources as Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile, Huntsville,” Head said.
“I don’t want anyone to think any of the arts organizations in Mobile, that ‘they’re fine, they’ll just go someplace else.’ We’re already going ‘someplace else.’ We need that, too,” Wright cautioned.
Head is also on the board for the Alabama Humanities Foundation and fears it would be hit even harder with the NEH zeroed out. He estimated 80 percent of its budget relies on NEH funding.
“They fund everything from films to Museum on Main Street to lectures and programs for teachers and students. If NEH were to be abolished it would be hard for the Alabama Humanities Foundation to survive,” Head said.
Wright is hopeful. He foresees Capitol Hill as a savior of sorts.
“I predict the NEA survives but in a truncated state. I think there are people who are invested enough in those things to say ‘Wait, if we just kill this off then we have no mechanism to deal with it in a better time. Let’s at least keep it so we have a skeleton crew to work with in the event things improve and we can fund it better.’ Resurrection is harder than revival,” Wright said.
“People don’t remember the real estate deals necessarily or the plumbing issues of ancient cultures, but they do know those cultures by their art. It’s the part that lives the longest and has our dreams and aspirations embedded in the art itself. It tells others who we are,” Velders said.