Connecticut cultural leaders reacted with dismay on Thursday to the proposed elimination of federal arts funding to thousands of arts and humanities projects nationwide each year, both small community organizations and major museums and performing-arts entities.
Advocates say while the money isn't substantial — and opposition in Congress is substantial — the impact would be felt from Hartford to New London to Greenwich.
"To eliminate what amounts to a very small dollar amount in the overall federal budget has wide-reaching effects and is unconscionable," said Michael Stotts, managing director of Hartford Stage. Stotts — whose 2004 world premiere of Edward Albee's "At Home at the Zoo" was partially funded by the NEA — called the proposed cuts "barbaric."
President Trump's proposed budget, released Thursday, would eliminate funding to four federal arts-and-culture funding to the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The four agencies have a combined budget of about $1 billion.
Jerry Franklin, CEO of the Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network, said they would lose $1.9 million from a budget of $21 million.
"If the Administration is successful it would be devastating to CPB, our largest source of federal funding, as well as locally to the Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network," Franklin said in a statement released Thursday.
Kristina Newman-Scott, director of culture for the state Department of Community and Economic Development, said state organizations receive $739,800 from the NEA annually, an amount matched by the state general fund. This is distributed to more than 300 arts and culture organizations statewide.
"This type of cut isn't going to get them any closer to the kind of balance they're trying to save," Newman-Scott said.
Some local arts leaders compared this budget proposal to efforts in the '80s and '90s, led by U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, to cut funding to the NEA or to control what it funds. "It doesn't seem like a move to save money so much as an ideological statement about what he thinks is
important in our society and our country," said Steve Collins, executive director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. "The NEA comprises far, far less than 1 percent of the federal budget. Why would you go there?"
During what became known as the "culture wars," Helms' activities were cheered by religious and social conservatives who were shocked at what they considered morally inappropriate aesthetic trends. The most famous target of the "culture wars" was the homoerotic photography of Robert Mapplethorpe.
Elaine Carroll, CEO of New Haven Symphony Orchestra, which receives $20,000 to $25,000 annually from federal agencies, said "the NEA has unfortunately been on the chopping block and it always survives."
Arts organizations' annual budgets are typically funded by individual, institutional and corporate funding and revenue, as well as federal grants. The amount of grants varies from year to year, depending on what projects and presentations the arts venues are developing. Federal grants, which are usually a small percentage of the annual budget, often come with a matching-funds stipulation.
Arts leaders say that stipulation is a strong driver of fundraising, because federal funding, though relatively small, boosts the prestige of arts projects, and that prestige attracts more funding. "They are the earliest dollars, but sometimes the earliest dollars are the 'confidence dollars,' and have given us success in philanthropy otherwise," said Tom Loughman, CEO of Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford.
Will K. Wilkins, director of Real Art Ways in Hartford, said the art space's $1.2 million annual budget usually includes $20,000 to $40,000 from the NEA, earmarked toward specific exhibits and presentations. Wilkins called the president's proposed budget "a shame but not a surprise." He compared the budget to previous attempts to muzzle the NEA.
"What's different this time is that the Republicans control the White House and the House and the Senate and since the threats to the NEA have really gained steam, that's never been the case," Wilkins said. "At the same time, I think it's unlikely for all of these institutions to be eliminated. But there could be terrible damage done to each of them."
James Bundy, artistic director of Yale Repertory Theatre, whose recent play "Imogen Says Nothing" was supported by an NEA grant, echoed Newman-Scott's sentiments. "The notion of eliminating expenditures of tax revenue of less than 50 cents per citizen to support the arts is antithetical to the idea of a vibrant modern democracy."
Other arts leaders expressed cautious optimism, citing bipartisan opposition to the agencies' elimination and the past resilience of federal arts funding. "I'm alarmed by it but I've seen the convulsions the NEA has gone through in the past," said Peter Sutton, director of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich. "It's been funded and then underfunded and then it's clawed its way back several times."
Preston Whiteway, executive director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, pointed out superstars whose careers were boosted by NEA-funded projects at the O'Neill. "Without support from the National Endowment for the Arts, August Wilson might have remained a short-order cook in St. Paul, Minn., Lin-Manuel Miranda and Wendy Wasserstein's talents might never have been shared with the world," Whiteway said.
In Hartford, a mural installed in 2009 above the doorway at Pelican Tattoo on Park Street was partially funded with federal funds.
"The mural never would have happened without government funding," Bascetta said. "If that stopped, it would be the end of the world, " said Joe Bascetta, the building's owner.
"People just love it. They stand in front of it all the time. Buses pull up in front of it if the traffic is backed up and people's heads crank around to try to figure it out," said Joe Bascetta, the building's owner. "Student tours come from Trinity College and the tour guides congregate across the street. It's the greatest-looking building in the city."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct James Bundy's quote citing the NEA per capita figure.