Howard “Sandman” Sims, a fixture at the Apollo Theater and a gifted vaudevillian dancer who taught Gregory Hines and Ben Vereen, was a recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. With the $5000 he earned from the fellowship, he taught dance classes to children in a parking lot in Harlem. He was known to have his tap shoes in his back pocket at all times and worked as a mechanic and carpenter on the side.
I am fortunate to make my living in the arts. It hasn’t been an easy or stable road. And I don’t say that needing a teardrop or a pat on the back. Artists follow their path because they’re inspired to do so. They hear a calling. Artists are a culture’s compass. They celebrate our victories, call out our injustices and constantly encourage questions. The arts inspire, teach and enrich our lives. And, when a culture stops caring about its art, that’s a sign that the culture is going to decay. And I say that not as empty rhetoric, but as historical fact.
In proposed budget cuts from President Trump's transition team, PBS and NPR would be privatized and the National Endowment for the Arts “would be eliminated entirely.” If that upsets you (and it should), call your congress people now and speak up. Get angry. This is our culture being thrown out.
I grew up on PBS. I can credit Mr Rogers Neighborhood, Sesame Street, Reading Rainbow, Square One Television and Zoobilee Zoo as providing some of my earliest bursts of creative learning and emotional understanding of others. And, as I’ve aged, PBS pointed me in the direction of Ken Burns and his library of incredibly dense and brilliant documentaries and it’s where I first saw Into The Woods performed by Bernadette Peters and the original Broadway cast that blew my mind and heart wide open. PBS NewsHour is one of the most dependable places for news. And, then, there’s The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross, American Masters, Masterpiece, Frontline, NOVA, Independent Lens and Antiques Roadshow. It was also the gateway for many to Monty Python, Benny Hill, Doctor Who, Sherlock, Mr. Bean, Downton Abbey and Fawlty Towers.
And I listen to NPR often for news and for enlightening radio shows and podcasts that dare to dig like This American Life, Radiolab, Code Switch, Planet Money, Fresh Air with Terry Gross, All Things Considered and Bullseye.
If you look around, you’ll see that PBS and NPR are the only places that offer this type of programming and that’s because they weren’t privatized. Privatization leaves PBS and NPR open to corporatization, which leaves their programming open to pollution by corporate messaging. If you don’t understand that, then you don’t understand what makes PBS and NPR special and that’s sad to me.
As far as the National Endowment for the Arts is concerned, here are just a few names that have benefitted from NEA grants: Diane Arbus, Chuck Close, Merce Cunningham, Jonathan Franzen, Allen Ginsberg, Martha Graham, Robert Mapplethorpe, Joyce Carol Oates, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Alice Walker and Eudora Welty.
To understand how little of our federal spending currently goes to the NEA, take a look at the pie chart in this Washington Post article. According to the article, “If you were at Thanksgiving and demanded a slice of pecan pie proportionate to 2016 NEA spending, you'd end up with a piece of pie that would need to be sliced off with a finely-tuned laser.” And with that tiny piece of pie, the NEA has helped to fund so much enrichment that it’s way easier to list the Symphonies, Theaters and Museums that have NOT received NEA funding than to list all the ones that have.
Here’s just a few of the organizations that have benefited from the NEA (and this is just a partial list of places in communities where I’ve lived in or near):
Cleveland Ballet, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Public Theatre, Cleveland Playhouse, Cuyahoga Community College’s Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland.
Pittsburgh City Theatre, Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre, Mattress Factory, Quantum Theatre.
The Goodman Theatre, Hubbard Street Dance Company, Lookingglass Theatre, Museum of Contemporary Art, Neo-Futurists, The New Colony, Piven Theatre Workshop, Redmoon Theater, Steppenwolf Theater Company, Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
In NEW YORK CITY:
Atlantic Theatre Company, New York Botanical Garden, Carnegie Hall, Guggenheim Museum, Labyrinth Theater Company, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Opera, Vineyard Theatre, Whitney Museum of American Art, Wooster Group.
In LOS ANGELES:
The Actors' Gang, Center Theatre Group, Geffen Playhouse, Grammy Museum Foundation, Hollywood Fringe Festival, La Jolla Playhouse, Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Santa Monica Symphony Association.
The NEA has also created and/or funded countless programs for artistic growth, expression and healing in communities and programs to help our nation’s youth, veterans and underprivileged. Here’s where some more of that tiny piece of pie went:
-Garrison Keillor credits an NEA grant with helping him start A Prairie Home Companion.
-An NEA grant helped cover the publishing costs of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, A Confederacy of Dunces.
-An NEA grant is credited with saving the American Ballet Theatre.
-The NEA was approached by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund to setup and fund the competition that Maya Lin won to create the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
-It teamed up with Motion Picture Association of American and the Ford Foundation to found the American Film Institute Institute whose goal was to preserve landmark films which were on the verge of deterioration. Among the films saved: Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, John Ford’s Stagecoach and DW Griffith’s Intolerance.
-It helped in the preservation of the timeless field recordings of Alan Lomaxwho traveled around the country and interviewed and recorded the music of some of our country’s foremost fathers and mothers of American folk music in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, Cajun country, the Southwest and many others areas.
-For veterans and their families, it provided funding and support for the Operation Homecoming Initiative, which conducted writing workshops for troops, veterans, and their families and The Healing Arts Partnership at Walter Reed that used introduced art therapy to wounded soldiers. It also helped fund Blue Star Museums, which offers free admission to active-duty military personnel and their families at more than 2,000 museums in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and American Samoa.
-For rural areas, NEA grants funded Artrain, Inc., a traveling art museum that brings ever-changing exhibits to isolated areas of Michigan, Chamber Music Rural Residencies, which matched musicians with rural host sites where they provided school instruction, workshops, private lessons, and community concerts and Project Row Houses in Houston, which began as a transformation of rundown homes into art studios and gallery spaces and later expanded to after-school and adult education programs, summer courses, an infant care facility, a parenting class and housing for teenage mothers and a neighborhood garden.
If you don’t think cutting the NEA will affect you, you’re absolutely wrong. And if you don’t think a fraction of your tax dollars is worthy of these programs, then by all means, sit back and relax as these institutions crack and crumble. But, I take that personally. Not just because it affects me and my friends, but because the NEA nourishes our culture with free thought and that makes that little piece of pie absolutely priceless.