Others, like the Georgia Mountain Storytelling Festival in Young Harris, may cast a smaller shadow but are equally impactful in their own way.
What united Georgia’s diverse arts community Thursday was a deep, vocal appreciation for the National Endowment for the Arts.
Especially now that it might go away completely.
“We serve 15 to 17 counties in a very rural, agricultural area that’s also very poor,” said Mari Wright, executive director of the Albany Symphony Orchestra, which used a $10,000 NEA grant to bring a renowned Native American flutist to southwest Georgia for a performance and school visits last spring. “We could do all that because of the grant.”
An unseasonably cold day turned emotionally unsettling here Thursday with the news that President Donald Trump’s first federal budget plan had targeted the NEA for elimination. Signed into existence by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, the independent agency “works to give people across America the opportunity to participate in and experience the arts” through a combination of grants awarded to organizations and individuals that apply for them, and to states through their state and regional arts agencies.
The NEA’s website shows 44 grant recipients in Georgia in fiscal year 2016, mostly for amounts between $10,000 and $20,000, although a handful were for $40,000 to $50,000. The grants blanketed the state and artistic disciplines — from $25,000 to help put on a photo exhibition at the Telfair Museum in Savannah to $12,000 to elevate and enrich the Georgia Mountain Storytelling Festival taking place March 31-April 1 at Young Harris College.
“We sought the NEA grant because we needed the funds to be able to invite first-rate artists,” Young Harris College English professor and Study Abroad Program director Ruth Looper said about the four renowned “tellers” who are on this year’s lineup. “The Appalachian region has a rich oral tradition … NEA Art Works grants are awarded to organizations and events that uplift the community by reminding all of us of the power of art to transform experience, to change us in often startling ways.”
The largest grant — $772,500, or the bulk of the 40 percent of the NEA’s grantmaking budget that goes to state and regional arts agencies — went to the Georgia Council for the Arts. GCA uses both that NEA money and additional state funding to award its own grants in Georgia: $1.2 million in all to 186 different recipients this year, said executive director Karen Paty.
“The nonprofit arts alone has an economic impact of $2.2 billion and (accounts for) about 31,000 jobs in the state,” Paty said, pointing out that the GCA is part of the Georgia Department of Economic Development. On Thursday, she seemed to advocate a take-a-deep-breath approach to the seemingly dire news about the NEA. “I think we’re at the start of the process, not the end.”
Indeed, the president’s proposed budget is only a jumping-off point for what typically is a long and continually changing process. Congress ultimately makes the budget, and the combination of the NEA’s comparatively minuscule funding — $148 million in 2016, approximately 0.004 percent of the overall federal budget — and the fact that it made grants in every congressional district in the country has some advocates hopeful the agency will escape the ax.
Still, this was a new and nerve-racking twist. Until now, no president had ever suggested doing away with the NEA entirely.
The response from cultural institutions and leaders here was measured, but no less dramatic:
“The importance of the NEA goes beyond supporting the productions that enhance the lives of our audiences; it is important to our Georgia institutions and communities, as well as the arts and culture of this country as a whole,” said Arturo Jacobus, president and CEO of the Atlanta Ballet, which received a $20,000 grant to support its staging of “Firebird” next month. “Cutting the costs from or eliminating the NEA would result in a tragic outcome for arts organizations throughout the country as the NEA is the only arts funder in America, public or private, that supports the arts in 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories.”
Said the Albany Symphony’s Wright: “We’ll probably (apply) again next year … If we still can.”