The National Endowment for the Arts was present at the creation of the klezmer revival.
Pete Rushefsky, executive director of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance and an important musician in contemporary klezmer, recalled, “For us, the NEA were the original funders of the klezmer revival. We received grant money from them for the original ‘Tribute to Dave Tarras’ dance party in 1978. That was ‘the Big Bang of the klezmer revival.’ And it was the first time a performance was called a klezmer event. It put the word into the common vocabulary.”
The occasion of his reminiscence is not next year’s 40th anniversary of the event. What triggered Rushefsky’s recollection was the impending release of the first budget plan from the new administration in Washington, a plan that is strongly rumored to include the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
The impact of such cuts on the not-for-profit arts world could be devastating and would fall heavily on the Jewish sector of that community.
Rushefsky ruefully observes that almost every place he plays receives some NEA funding, including the venues hosting the Itzhak Perlman 20th- anniversary “Father’s House” tour.
Eva Brune, vice president for institutional advancement for the Museum at Eldridge Street, said, “We receive a lot of money from the endowments. We get $20,000 for a signature event [the annual Egg Rolls and Egg Creams street festival] that attracts 14,000 people every summer, but we have also received grants of as much as $150,000 from the NEH, depending on what project we are working on.”
Funding on that level from the NEH’s museum and library services programs, she added, “really allows us to put in place substantial exhibits and educational programs. These are transformative projects for our organization. They made it possible for us to create our new visitors center and to put in a permanent exhibit that has given us a tremendous amount of exposure. It has enhanced our K-12 and adult educational programs. For us these are major initiatives.”
The three federal programs facing termination are admirable examples of fiscal efficiency. Philip Bump wrote in the Jan. 19 issue of the Washington Post that “the Corporation for Public Broadcasting received $445 million in 2016. … NEA got $148 million. NEH requested the same. The Congressional Budget Office figures that about $3.9 trillion was spent by the government during the fiscal year.”
Noting that the Trump administration has expressed the intention to cut about $1.05 trillion annually from the federal budget, Bump wrote that “ending funding for these three programs only gets you 0.074 percent of the way there.”
For less than a billion dollars, those three programs provide federal funding that is parceled out among arts councils in every state, 56 state and regional humanities councils and hundreds of educational television stations and National Public Radio affiliates across the country. They provide matching grants, encouraging local investment and donations, for arts and humanities projects including museum and library services, educational programs for teachers and the public, funding for basic needs for theaters, symphonies, chamber music societies and the entire range of folk arts.
“Folk and traditional arts organizations are more heavily dependent on government funding,” Rushefsky said. “We don’t have large donors who get to put their name on a building. We’re working with underserved communities. This is not like a modern dance company, where affluent people can bring their affluent friends.”
Charlotte Cohen, executive director of the Brooklyn Arts Council, said of the federal funding that her not-for-profit organization distributes as a re-granting organization, “It isn’t a lot of money, but it’s a stamp of approval that draws other funders. It signifies that a panel of your peers, experts following rules and guidelines governing equity and fairness and geographical diversity, found you worthy. It has a huge ripple effect.”
But despite that ripple effect, there remains an inherent split between urban and rural arts and humanities funding. An orchestra in a large city like Indianapolis can turn to other local corporate and philanthropic sources for money; a folk arts program in Appalachia will have to look much harder.
In short, although the BAC gets over 65 percent of its budget from government sources (including state and city arts councils) and the loss of pass-through grant money that goes from the NEA to the New York State Council on the Arts and then to local organizations would be a big hit, BAC has some alternatives that wouldn’t be available for a museum in a small town in, say, Oklahoma.
There are other factors that are seldom discussed when the potential damage of the proposed shutdown of the endowments is considered.
As an example, Cohen recounts a recent conversation with a colleague at a major art museum that had agreed to lend an important painting to a gallery overseas.
“The NEA funds insurance for overseas loans of art works,” she explains. “With the threat of the loss of those funds, the museum has to put everything relating to the loan on hold. They are facing the possibility of having to find hundreds of thousands of dollars that they hadn’t budgeted for just to insure that work or they’ll have to cancel.”
As Isaac Zablocki, director of the Israel Film Center, which is housed at JCC Manhattan, observed, “There are almost no places on American [broadcast] television that you can see foreign-language documentaries except PBS. It’s the one reliable home for Israeli documentaries and losing it would have an impact.”
There is, advocates for arts funding argue, another kind of ripple effect that makes federal and local arts and humanities funding vital. A recent letter from the program heads at Lincoln Center noted that the arts and entertainment industries represent a massive business in America, of a magnitude that they estimate at $700 billion. That covers a lot of taxpayers, from the security guard at the entrance to a museum to the ticket taker at your local movie theater.
“We’re talking about payment to local businesses, salaries, taxes, purchasing power,” Cohen said. “The money isn’t going to line someone’s pocket.”
Since the culture war controversies of the 1990s, when the NEA was under attack for grants to controversial artists, the brouhaha surrounding the endowments and public broadcasting have subsided considerably. In the wake of those battles, the agency ceased making grants to individual artists, leaving that task to state and local arts councils and re-granting organizations like the BAC. Cohen estimates that about 40 percent of the NEA funds go to the state councils for use at their discretion.
That shift may make it possible for arts advocates to once again stave off the shutdown of the federal programs.
“We’ve been through this before, of course,” Cohen says. “The arts community is galvanized and can organize quickly, and the advent of social media and the Internet means that we are in touch with one another across the country.”
That doesn’t mean that people in the arts and humanities world aren’t concerned.
“There are so many difficult issues flying around — cuts to health insurance and care, the immigration ban, these cuts,” Rushefsky says. “It’s hard to keep track of everything and keep lobbying. Everybody we know was shocked. But it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee.”
Despite the dire predictions, though, many in the arts world are guardedly optimistic. Cohen noted the significant impact of arts and humanities funding in Indiana, home state of Vice President Pence, adding “I think he can understand and appreciate that.”
And as The New York Times has pointed out, there are many advocates for arts funding who have close ties to Donald Trump and have been trying to get his attention.
“I have to be optimistic,” Eva Brune said. “It’s hard to imagine that this country would allow such a wide range of programs — concerts, symphony, children’s museums, festivals, folk arts — such a wealth of activity to be compromised.”