Though one of the highlight exhibitions at the National Museum of American Jewish History here in Philly was planned for years, it now feels more relevant than ever: It focuses on three key events in 1917, a singular year in history that museum leaders say not only changed the lives of American Jews, but spurred conflict that ushered in an attitude toward immigration that reverberates today.
“The fallout of some of that,” Ivy Barsky, CEO and Gwen Goodman Director at the museum, said, “was incredible xenophobia in this country. Fear of immigrants. A kind of doubling down on quotas and suspicion of ‘the other.’”
But here’s the thing about “1917: The year that changed the world”: The exhibition that features nearly 125 artifacts and was co-organized by the American Jewish Historical Society in New York, was partially paid for by a $325,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. If the Trump Administration gets its way, the NEH — as well as the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and other similar entities — will be eliminated.
So in the days since the administration unveiled its proposed federal budget, leaders of Philadelphia arts and humanities institutions have indicated they’re ready to put up a fight.
The NEH and the NEA annually dole out millions of dollars worth of mostly small grants to arts and humanities organizations in congressional districts across the country. In the last five years, the NEA has awarded more than $7 million worth of grants to about 100 Philadelphia cultural institutions. In the last two years, the NEH granted nearly $10 million to museums in Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.
In a bid to raise awareness of what could be lost, there have been press conferences, op-eds and advocacy campaigns defending the arts and humanities. David B. Devan, general director and president at Opera Philadelphia, said for some organizations, it isn’t all about the dollars they’d lose. It’s about the symbolism of supporting the arts and humanities.
“Beyond the money, which is almost less than a rounding error in the national budget,” Devan said, “really the value of all these entities surrounded around humanities and the arts is about us, collectively as a society, recognizing that artistic expression is a part of who we are.”
The NEA ‘seal of approval’
You might have caught Opera Philadelphia’s production of “Cold Mountain” earlier this year. Commissioned in partnership with the Santa Fe Opera, the show was a large project and both companies spent well over $2 million to make it happen. But it was an early $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that kicked off the fundraising process needed to secure the dollars to put on the show. The NEA grant was part of their case for support.
Grants from the NEA are typically a small part of overall budgets at art institutions and often don’t come close to the funding scale of private donations. But they provide an important jumping point similar to seed funding that gives a project legitimacy by funding early work that needs to be done prior to a major exhibition.
“It’s like a ‘Good Housekeeping seal of approval’ on the project that you can sort of use as evidence,” Devan, who has been involved in the process of awarding NEA grants, said, “that what you’re doing kind of is a good idea.”
Maud Lyon, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, said because so many of the grants from the NEA are on the smaller side, there’s an assumption the private sector could pick up where the feds left off. But, she said, “that’s not really true.” To her, federal funding does three main things: It provides that early-stage push for projects, it supports institutions preserving and organizing collections and it improves access to the arts and humanities in low-income and rural communities.
“The arts often get accused of being elite,” Lyon said. “Loss of federal funding would make that more so.”
‘If it goes away, the symbol really sucks’
The elimination of the NEH would mean near-immediate program cuts for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, an organization supported largely through NEH grants. Laurie Zierer, executive director of the Council, said the group’s “Teen Reading Lounge” — a non-traditional book club launched in 80 public libraries statewide — would be on the chopping block. So would similar programming. The goal was to provide access to kids in low-income and rural areas who might not otherwise be getting an education in the arts and humanities.
“We’re absolutely concerned,” Zierer said, “and we do not take this lightly coming from the Trump administration.”
Small arts and humanities institutions would likely feel a more drastic impact following cuts to the NEA. A grant that usually averages between $10,000 and $30,000 isn’t going to make or break larger arts institutions in Philadelphia, though it may make or break some programs. Nick Stuccio, president and producing director at FringeArts, said he’s learned over decades of working in the arts that when there’s a funding shortage, “you can only look forward.”
“We’re allowed 30 seconds to get really pissed and then you’ve got to ditch it,” Stuccio said. “These are the conditions. This is the playing field. How do we move the ball forward? That’s the only way you can survive.”
He said it’s essential funding for arts and culture shows up alongside what’s allocated for housing, transportation and healthcare.
“A lot of people, we are discovering, don’t give a shit about that and are against it, but tough. It’s there,” Stuccio, of FringeArts, said. “These things are essential to our society, and when it’s there as a federal allocation, that’s a symbol. It’s alongside those basic things that we need in a civil society. If it goes away, the symbol really sucks.”
Barsky, of the NMAJH, said the proposed budget that slashes funding for NEA, NEH and other similar entities is “clearly symbolic on the administration’s part.” The proposed cuts would save less than a billion dollars, a small piece of the country’s $4 trillion budget matrix. For Barsky and others in the arts community, right now feels a bit like the culture wars of the late 1980s and early ’90s.
“We go through this often in having to defend what arts and culture contribute to the country and to humanity,” she said, “and it is a little tiring to make the case again when it seems like it should be so very obvious.”
‘We needed to do something’
Tiring for leaders in the arts to defend their craft? Sure. They’re still doing it, though. And they’re as usual working to find new revenue streams to make up for lost funding. Stuccio, of FringeArts, said the company is in the midst of organizing FringeA-Thon, a 12-hour dance marathon meant to not only support FringeArts, but the entire arts and culture scene in Philadelphia.
“Funding goes up goes down and then it goes away,” Stuccio said. “We felt it was sort of a lower point in that cycle. We needed to do something. We needed to step in and find new revenue streams.”
Meanwhile, the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance has teamed up with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to put on a panel and press conference this week to advocate for federal support for the arts and humanities. This Thursday morning at PAFA, leaders in the Philadelphia arts community will gather with other stakeholders to address the proposed funding cuts.
The Cultural Alliance has also launched a “#SaveTheArts” advocacy campaign, including an entire portion of their website dedicated to helping constituents call their legislators and get involved in social media campaigns aimed at rescuing federal funding for arts and humanities.
Devan, of Opera Philadelphia, himself penned a blog post on the company’s website in response to the proposed federal funding cuts titled “Art Is What Makes Us Human.” In it, he wrote that cutting the NEA “represents shutting the door on encouraging human expression, thereby shortchanging our potential to progress.” Still, Devan said the opera “isn’t here to be political.” Instead, they’re working to create a dialogue — one that may end up spurring supporters to make a political statement of their own.
“We let people do what they feel they need to do,” Devan said. “We believe our work, whether it’s on stage or in a blog post, is about creating a space for people to come together to share ideas to have a common understanding.”
Zierer, of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, said she and her colleagues aren’t in a “wait-and-see” mode. Instead, they’re working actively to engage and mobilize not only legislators, but constituents.
“It’s not just about dollars and cents,” she said. “It’s about who we are and who we want to be.”