Rick Winston: Arts and humanities programs under threat of extinction

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Rick Winston, who was the co-owner of the Savoy Theater in Montpelier from its inception in 1980 until 2009. He is now a film history instructor at the Montpelier Senior Activity Center, and a speaker on film history for the Vermont Humanities Council.

A few months ago I had the honor to represent the Adamant Community Arts Center at an awards ceremony sponsored by the Vermont Arts Council. This ceremony recognized the community organizations that received grants from the Cultural Facilities program, which is dedicated to creating and maintaining performance spaces.

As I watched other grantees claim their awards – for the Brattleboro Music School, the Orleans Historical Society, the Montshire Museum, among 18 others – I was once again struck by how the Arts Council enriches the cultural life of communities all across Vermont. The Cultural Facilities program is just one of the Arts Council’s grant projects; there are also Artists in the Schools, Animating Infrastructure, and Arts Partnership grants, to name a few.

Yet there was a palpable sense of anxiety at the awards event. As all involved in the arts and humanities know, these programs are under threat of extinction by the president and Congress. The total expenditure for the National Endowment for the Arts accounts for .004 percent of the federal budget, or just a little more than the cost of one F-35 plane. But money is clearly not the issue. Programs that are crucial to the life of our communities, and which contribute so much to the local economy, are high on the elimination wish list of certain powerful ideologues.

Reading Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt recently, I learned that we have been at this juncture before. In 1939, a coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats managed to defund one of the most successful parts of the Works Project Administration, the Federal Theater Project. As Cook relates, “the Project presented plays, circuses, operas, vaudeville, dance theater, and children’s theater in public parks, schools and colleges, community centers and hospitals. It employed 10,000 people and built 200 regional theaters around the country.”

The total expenditure for the National Endowment for the Arts accounts for .004 percent of the federal budget, or just a little more than the cost of one F-35 plane.


It drew over 40 million Americans, many of whom had never before been to a theatrical performance. It was an astonishing success, but not to the conservative ideologues who condemned as inherently suspect federal support for creativity. The House of Representatives, led by Martin Dies of Texas, branded certain plays lewd and “salacious,” based on their titles alone, including such classics as Sheridan’s “School for Scandal” and Moliere’s “School for Wives.”

Mrs. Roosevelt, a friend of the Theater Project’s director Hallie Flanagan, took to the airwaves in support of the program: “Somehow we must build throughout this country a background of culture … No nation grows up until that is accomplished.” Privately, she lamented the fact that “there was nothing I could do to help. Evidently the House has decided that it doesn’t matter what happens to people who have definite talents” in the theater: from the directors and actors to the stagehands and lighting designers. The Federal Theater Project was terminated on the day following the vote.

Today we have to repeat Mrs. Roosevelt’s arguments, and insist, as she also did, that ideas and creativity invariably involve controversy and disagreement. Instead of celebrating the National Endowment for the Arts and its many projects in all parts of the country, those in power are threatened by it and seek to destroy it. I urge everyone to read about the various grantees listed on the Vermont Arts Council website ( – whether in our schools or other community centers — and then to imagine what will be lost if the proposed cuts are enacted.

If you read us, please support us.

Comment Policy requires that all commenters identify themselves by their authentic first and last names. Initials, pseudonyms or screen names are not permissible.

No personal harrassment, abuse, or hate speech is permitted. Comments should be 1000 characters or fewer.

We moderate every comment. Please go to our FAQ for the full policy.


Recent Stories

Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "Rick Winston: Arts and humanities programs under threat of extinction"
  • Jon Corrigan

    I would have thought Hollywood would jump at the opportunity to pony up the paltry amount required to cover whatever amount is being sliced from the federal budget. Guess not.

  • Gary Murdock

    “Reading Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt recently, I learned that we have been at this juncture before. In 1939,”
    Everything in context people. What Mr. Winston fails to mention is that the country was in the final year of the Great Depression, and the beginning of the “New Deal”, in 1939. Do you think that maybe, just maybe, the arts were not a big priority considering the problems the country faced at the time? But I do agree with the writers statement that we have been at this junction before…a stagnant economy and crippling deficits, this time the result of 8 years of Obama and progressive policy. If you cut through the democrats noise you’ll find that correction playing out now. The arts survived the cuts of 1939, they will survive the cuts of 2017.

    • David Bell

      “a stagnant economy and crippling deficits,”

      Deficits went down under Obama and GDP has been growing pretty consistently.

  • Edward Letourneau

    Considering what movie actors, TV starts and singers earn, I think the

    Arts and humanities advocates that aren’t earning a living in their craft ought to be looking somewhere besides the public dole for their money.

  • Mason Singer

    I’m writing to second the message in Rick’s commentary. Taxpayers have long made tiny investments to help underwrite individual artists and cultural organizations in the belief that we are all better off with a vibrant creative community. This is particularly important for small, more rural areas without easy access to events and facilities.

    In response to Mr. Letourneau’s comment: Most actors and singers do not earn big money, or even small money. Supporting the arts does not put artists on the “public dole.” The artists work hard for their money and their work enriches our country and encourages open minds.

    In response to Mr. Murdock’s comment: One, the Works Progress Administration was a great success and brought a wide variety of arts to remote parts of the country to the delight of impoverished and isolated Americans. Two, we are not approaching anything like the aftermath of the Great Depression. Three, there’s plenty of money out there to support the meager amount spent on the arts and humanities. Yes, the arts will survive any budget cuts — but since most of us benefit in some way, let’s chip in and help.

    All Americans can benefit from arts and humanities funding, not just the wealthy. We need to continue support for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. They’re well worth it.

  • David Bell

    This obscure planet called Earth.

    I have no idea what source told you deficits went up under Obama,

    Perhaps you ave the word debt and deficit mixed up?

    Stagnant would mean an economy that has not increased, GDP has been going up for quite some time. And that despite a GOP that has made it clear they don’t care how much suffering they inflict as long as they stick it to Dems.

    The only accomplishment Trump has to his name so far is Trumpcare, a plan to steal health insurance from tens of millions while raising premiums and copay’s. That is making America Great again?

  • Timothy Mooney

    The benefits of our investment in cultural growth during Roosevelt’s time has paid off to a degree that we will never know nor appreciate. Our booming film industry is just a single example of a creative life that has bubbled out of that investment for the decades that followed. Conversely, choking off that investment and starving it of the “seeds” that grow our rich culture will lead us to give up our strategic cultural advantage, and the world will turn to find it’s cultural inspiration elsewhere: Canada, France, Japan, China, even, yes, Mexico. Likewise, today, we cannot know or appreciate just what we are about to lose until we find the collective gaze of the world has fully pivoted in some other direction.

    I never hear the voices raised to complain that the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines are living “on the dole,” though clearly they would never survive without taking their cut of our tax dollars. And one could certainly make the argument that the destructive impact of their behaviors has done our reputation far more damage than good over recent decades.

    It is truly a small-minded, miserly, mendacious individual who would suggest that the exposure of American citizenry writ large to the cultural experience that is their great heritage should be subject to such savage, Scrooge-like book-balancing. (“Are there no prisons? Are there no work houses?”) You would sacrifice our great cultural advantage to deny the arts FOUR ONE HUNDRED THOUSANDTHS portion of the federal budget.

    Yes, one in a million artists may make a million dollars in their business. But the overwhelming majority of us strive in obscurity, bringing tiny victories to remote communities, where students who never knew of their existence may for once grasp at Shakespeare, Socrates, or the vast tapestry of human history, knowledge and glory. That kind of relentless, devoted artistry will never turn anyone a profit. But it will nurture the souls of a great nation, and teach us that we are more than our armaments or our gross domestic product.

  • JohnGreenberg

    News flashes from planet earth:

    1) “Obama is the first president in this countries history to deliver not one single month of GDP growth at or above 3%.” First, GDP growth is measured by quarters, not by months.

    Second, during the Obama years, the American economy grew by 4% or more in the 4th quarter of 2009, the 2nd quarter of 2010, the 4th quarter of 2011, the 4th quarter 2013, and the 3rd quarter of 2014.
    There were additional quarters at or above 3%.

    It is worth keeping in mind that the economy Obama inherited from George Bush was shrinking at a greater clip than any time since the 1930s.

    2) “deficit growth was 2 to 3 times what it was under Bush.” That’s not even close.

    Here are the figures in billions:

    2009 $1,413 Fiscal year 2009 began on Oct. 1, 2008. Obama elected in November, 2008 and takes office January 2009
    2010 $1,294
    2011 $1,300
    2012 $1,087
    2013 $680
    2014 $485
    2015 $438
    2016 $585
    2017 $603 EST
    2018 $440 EST
    Since you make the comparison, George W Bush inherited a surplus of $128 billion in 2001 and left office with the $1413 deficit shown above.

    In other words, the deficit GREW considerably under George Bush and shrank considerably under Barack Obama.

    All deficit figures are from Table 1.1 of the Historical
    Tables of the Budget of the US Government.