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 (www.vermontartscouncil.org) – whether in our schools or other community centers — and then to imagine what will be lost if the proposed cuts are enacted.