An Attack on the Soul of Baltimore

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An Op-Ed by Jane Brown

Last month, in an appropriately nicknamed “Skinny Budget,” President Trump attacked the soul of Baltimore. The new president asked Congress to completely eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). He did the same with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Trump’s budget went on to cut funds for community development block grants, for workforce development programs, and for federal support for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. These cuts and others are proposed to let the president vastly increase funds for the Pentagon. They will also diminish the quality of life for all Baltimoreans and undercut work now underway to strengthen neighborhoods across the city.

As the president of a foundation that invests in many of these efforts in Baltimore, I view the Trump budget as hostile to the city, misleading to the public, and counter-productive at its core.

Take the proposal to eliminate the NEA. Bean counters, like White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, justify Trump’s assault on the arts by asking: “Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs?” Let’s look at the numbers.

The NEA’s federal appropriation this year totals $148 million; and more than 80 percent is distributed as grants and awards to organizations and individuals. By way of comparison, our country spends about $430 million on U.S. military bands.

The NEA’s spending represents 0.004 percent of the federal budget, about 46 cents per American, dramatically less, by the way, than most Western societies such as Germany, France, and England. Much of the NEA’s budget goes out to the 50 states, which in turn decide how to allocate the money to arts organizations.

This year, NEA grants are being made in nearly 16,000 communities across the nation. In Maryland, the NEA is awarding 19 grants totaling $520,000. That $520,000 divided by 19 gives you an average of $27,400, which isn’t a lot. But here’s the thing – that money is leveraged as well as any allocation of taxpayer dollars anywhere. Every $1 of NEA direct funding generates up to $9 in state, local, and private funds.

The federal dollars, then, have a truly outsized effect. Small- and medium-sized arts organizations build a pyramid of financial support, starting with the small federal grant and then asking other donors, such as the foundation I head, to chip in. The NEA grant, decided at the state level, also serves to validate the arts organization as one that deserves support; a “seal of approval,” showing its legitimacy and value.

The elimination of the NEA will impact more than the finances of our arts organizations. It will take away from the city’s vitality and its soul.

The arts are playing an essential role in rebuilding our community. A bean counter won’t understand this, but there’s something magical about the ability of the arts to connect people, to make them feel included. In Baltimore this magic is happening all across the city.

Jane Brown (right) with Ruby Lerner, founding director (now retired) of Creative Capital, a NY-based arts granting organization that inspired Baltimore’s Ruby Grants at The Contemporary’s Inaugural Retreat.

How does Baltimore leverage NEA funding to protect its soul?

Consider the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, a diverse and emerging neighborhood that is remaking itself largely through a new commitment to the arts. Murals, art programming, and an influx of artists serve to engage residents, to bring creative energy to its streets, and to attract audiences and patrons from across the city.

Consider what happens in a high-rise apartment building in Station North, home to low-income elderly and people with disabilities, people who sometimes get stuck because the elevators seldom work. Then, consider the work of Dance & Bmore, a youthful group of dancers who come to perform in that building. Seeking to more than entertain, they invite senior residents to join in their performances and experience the joy of moving their bodies as part of a diverse company of dancers.

Together, they create an astonishing sense of kinship and community thanks to a small “Our Town” grant from the NEA. It’s heartening; it restores your faith that we’re all in this together. It’s just one example of what happens throughout the city.

The NEA was created in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson and over the decades, has faced many attacks. President Ronald Reagan wanted to shut it down, but famously was talked out of it by his buddy Charlton Heston. Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina led a right-wing assault in 1989 because he objected to the display of photos by Robert Mapplethorpe. The NEA survived.

Our answer to budget director Mulvaney is an emphatic “Yes!” Those coal miners and single moms are benefiting, too. Their humanity is being bolstered just like that of the residents of Baltimore. In this day and age in our divided country, isn’t that worth preserving?


Author Jane Brown is the president and executive director of the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, based in Baltimore. 

Full Disclosure: The Robert W. Deutsch Foundation is a major funding partner of BmoreArt.

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