Commentary

John R. Killacky: Vermont has much to lose

Editor’s note: This commentary is by John R. Killacky, the executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington. This is his testimony in a panel presentation at Vermont Nonprofit Legislative Day on March 23.

In 1965, the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act established the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. In this law, Congress declared, “It is vital to democracy to honor and preserve its multicultural artistic heritage as well as support new ideas, and therefore it is essential to provide financial assistance to its artists and the organizations that support their work.”

Since their inception, these two agencies, along with Corporation for Public Broadcasting (founded in 1967) and Institute for Museum and Library Services (established 1996) have been extraordinarily successful in democratizing the development and delivery of cultural programs in theaters, museums, libraries, parks, hospitals, military bases, and public television and radio stations in rural and urban communities across our nation.

President Trump has called for the elimination of these four august agencies, along with a slew of others in a radical downsizing of federal government investment. This is not the first time arts funding has been on the chopping block. Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract with America” called for elimination of arts funding, as part of shrinking the size of government.

Gutting these four cultural agencies produces no real savings since their budgets are infinitesimal. The debate really is whether the federal government should be in the business of funding the arts at all. Emotional arguments will take place in congressional appropriation committees in Washington later this spring.

Vermont has much to lose. In 2016, the state received over $4.7 million from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Block grants go to Vermont Arts Council, Vermont Humanities Council and the Department of Library Services.

This money is matched many times over by state government, Vermont Arts Council, Vermont Humanities Council, arts organizations, libraries and museums. VPR and Vermont PBS also match monies received from Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Alex Aldrich, the head of Vermont Arts Council, talks about how each dollar from the NEA generates close to $13 from public and private sources.

Federal agencies also cover the cost of free film licenses for libraries and lower music royalties for VPR. And offer indemnity insurance for museum exhibitions.

If these four federal arts, humanities, and public broadcast agencies are eliminated, Congress will have undone 50 years of federal support that nurtured Vermont’s cultural assets and created welcoming common ground for people to celebrate other cultures, connect to our creative selves, and share fun with family and friends.

Here are the kinds of programs at stake:

At the Flynn, federal funding helps to provide not only world-class performances and community activities with visiting artists, but also $27,000 to subsidize scholarships for classes. It helps allow 6,100 kids to attend student matinees free, 87 schools to host in-classroom workshops, and free movement workshops for folks with Parkinson’s and drumming workshops for people on the autism spectrum. The funding also helps 55 social service agencies give 2,000 discounted tickets to clients.

Shelburne Museum received $2.25 million over the last 10 years from NEA, IMLS and NEH to help renovate many of its historic buildings and develop programs. Federal dollars were often the first money in on these projects.

Cultural organizations have a huge economic impact in every town. Just talk to the restaurants near to the Paramount in Rutland, or restaurants in my town when Burlington City Arts presents its outdoor Festival of Fools.

 

ECHO, Montshire and Fairbanks museums receive $200,000-$400,000 per year from IMLS that is matched 1:1 with partner commitments and local cash grants. Federal support allows ECHO to build out exhibitions and offer 900 free memberships to low-income families.

The inter-library loan services in Vermont is supported with IMLS funds and the Department of Libraries and Vermont Humanities Council co-sponsor the First Wednesdays program, featuring outstanding speakers on a wide range of topics in nine public libraries.

Vermont’s Department of Libraries also received a $339,000, three-year grant from IMLS to introduce STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) learning to Vermont children and families.

Over the last two seasons, Vermont PBS and Burlington Discover Jazz Festival broadcast 16 hours of jazz concerts. These programs were free to viewers, but cost about $8,000 per hour.

I cannot imagine the media landscape without the range of free local, national and international news, public affairs and cultural programming if funds are eliminated for VPR and Vermont PBS. This will have a ripple effect on the amount of national programming available for broadcast at a time when unbiased journalism has never been more important.

Nonprofits cultural organizations employ many people in Vermont. The Flynn paid $2.5 million in salaries to 287 employees last year. Multiply this by folks working at Paramount Theater, Bennington and Brattleboro museums, Circus Smirkus, and others — it is easy to see that many jobs are at risk with the loss of federal funding.

Cultural organizations have a huge economic impact in every town. Just talk to the restaurants near to the Paramount in Rutland, or restaurants in my town when Burlington City Arts presents its outdoor Festival of Fools.

Tom Torti, president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, recognizes how important cultural organizations are to the vibrancy and success of the region’s private sector when he says, “It’s the culture of Vermont that sells Vermont.”

Every nonprofit across the state has similar stories of the transformative power and economic impact of the arts. In the weeks ahead, there will enormous lobbying on the national front to support these four federal arts agencies. Luckily, our Vermont congressional delegation supports the arts, but I am not sure we have enough bipartisan support.

If these four agencies are eliminated, cultural leaders will need to come to local and state government next year, along with our colleagues from human and social services, to ask Vermont to help fill enormous financial gaps.

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  • Edward Letourneau

    “…to ask Vermont to help fill enormous financial gaps” I guess you people have not noticed that Vermont taxpayers are taxed out.

    • Peter Everett

      Beware, there is yet more taxation to come out of Montpecular. Those in control of our pockets (it’s not the worker) haven’t begun their creative ways to “voluntarily” take more from us. “How can we tax thee, let us count the ways”. Think your tax poor now, just wait. The tax and spend legislature is just warming up in the ” bullpen”.

  • Paul Richards

    It’s sad that our government has pushed us to this point but we can no longer afford these programs. We can no longer kick the can down the road just so our elected officials can get reelected. Time to face the music.

  • Tim Loucks

    It is sad that the two previous commentors didn’t notice a very important point that John made. John’s third paragraph correctly points out that, “Gutting these four cultural agencies produces no real savings since their budgets are infinitesimal.” The real tragedy here is that while cutting the funding for these initiatives, Trump intends to spend even more money on our military – despite the fact that we already spend more than the next seven nations combined on national defense. And let’s not forget the wall…

  • Jon Corrigan

    No time like the present to refine and expand your fundraising efforts, Mr. Killacky.

    ‘In good times and bad, we know that people give because you meet needs, not because you have needs.’ – Kay Sprinkel Grace