The money is not what matters to the cultural sector when we talk about the National Endowment for the Arts. Yes, some companies are of a scale where the grants they might receive will make a material difference. But most organizations rely on NEA grants not for the funding itself, but for the catalytic, the programmatic, and the infrastructure shifts they make possible.
Two examples from our own experience testify to this impact: Ten years ago, a $25,000 NEA grant helped our organization plant the seeds for enhanced audience experiences through flat screens installed in theatre lobbies. These are now routine, but then, when a 26-inch screen cost $2,500, and making video was costly and cumbersome, we partnered with Time, Sharp Electronics and the NEA to foster a network of digital screens and content we called StageVision. This project helped bridge theatres into an array of digital and video interactions with their audiences that has become a foundation of their social media outreach.
Two years ago, partnering with Southwest Airlines and Cisco, we were able to leverage a $20,000 NEA grant into a year-long professional development program for our theatres’ education leaders. This self-facilitated sequence of webinars and travel grants enabled educators to explore issues of diversity, management, measurement, and emotional support for the growing numbers of children being served who were experiencing stress from their home environments.
No one else stepped up to provide the initial funding for these projects, and theatres, students and audiences were better served because of them.
We are currently awaiting word on a proposal that would pull together research experts and state policy experts along with our member theatres to explore improving the measurement practices for programs serving nearly 500,000 youth. This collective impact grant proposal was designed to accord with a strategy of change the NEA staff had adopted from private sector experts. They had tracked successful systemic problem solving and had identified a model that truly works. The money is helpful, but the idea, the intellectual capital, is what matters.
So to propose the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, this strikes me as taking a step in the wrong direction for what we need now. Community polarization, inequality, isolation and general coarsening of public discourse all threaten the very foundations of our democracy. Theatre and theatre education provide a means of bringing us together, eliciting our best selves, telling stories that heal and inspire. They are the precise antidote to the civil climate we face today, and we should not be weakening one of the core engines that drive this sector.
Many leaders, artists and organizations have made the artistic and economic case for the NEA and the role it plays in our country. As a collaborative network of theatres aspiring to innovate and sustain work that reaches millions of audience members each year, we at Theatre Forward depend upon the NEA not only for the funding we receive, but for the intellectual capital—the research, the framework, the networking, the catalyst—which has helped our sector become the vibrant, job-creating, community-building resource we are.
While we are aspiring to measure what our education and artistic programs do in quantitative or economic terms, we all know that their true value defies measurement. Traumatized children better served by their educators; opportunities for theatre teachers to grow in the field; performances that bring together all walks of life to hear a story that moves and inspires; our fractious times need these healing experiences more than ever.
Don’t shut down the NEA. Expand it.
Go to https://theatreforward.org/theatre-forward-supports-national-endowment-arts for further discussion and to see what our theatres say about the role of the NEA.