Slashing arts endowments

March 01, 1995

Some Republicans are seeking to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities to make the point the federal government has no business subsidizing the arts. That's a shortsighted argument. It ignores the enormous expansion of arts activities across the country made possible by the endowments since their founding 30 years ago.

But the impact of such cuts would be hard to ignore. They would be felt by every arts groups in Maryland as well as museums, theater companies, dance troupes and orchestras throughout America. They would hit hard at institutions that are attempting to reach out to local communities with programs aimed at engaging non-traditional audiences such as young people and minorities.

Established institutions like the Walters Art Gallery, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Center Stage all have been highly successful in using federal grants as "seed money" to attract private and corporate donors to new programs and projects. Such innovative Walters shows as "African Zion" or its exhibit of Armenian art, for example, would not have been possible without endowment support.

Many smaller arts groups and local arts initiatives are vitally dependent upon the endowments' modest grants, which support theater performances on Maryland's Eastern Shore, chamber music performances in Baltimore County, artist-in-residence programs in Western Maryland and BSO concerts for school children in Baltimore City.

These are the kinds of activities that bring the arts to a much wider audience than ever before possible. They also reflect the great democratization of the arts that has occurred over the past three decades largely as a result of the endowments' success. "Culture" is no longer something that flourishes only in a few large metropolitan areas but now is a vibrant element in the life of communities large and small across the nation.

We ought to be looking at ways to preserve and expand this tradition. Spending on the arts is a minuscule percentage of the federal budget -- no one pretends savings there would make a dent in the deficit. But pulling the plug on NEA and NEH would force urban institutions to retreat from the kind of local involvement and engagement that has transformed their relations to their communities in recent years. Meanwhile, many smaller arts groups would be left to slowly bleed to death. Is this the kind of "reform" America truly needs?

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