Arts funding in Maine would be “devastated” if the National Endowment for the Arts is eliminated, and Mainers who live in rural areas might see their TV and radio programming reduced if the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is privatized.
Both ideas have been floated by the Trump administration as cost-saving measures, along with the elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Neither idea has been formally proposed, but arts advocates in Maine are preparing for that possibility based on news from Washington, D.C.
“We are getting ready to mobilize the troops,” said Julie Richard, executive director of the Maine Arts Commission, which distributes about $500,000 in NEA money annually to Maine artists and arts groups. “It’s not a call to action yet, because there isn’t anything out there to act upon. But we want to be mindful of the situation in case we do need to mobilize the field.”
The possible cuts, which were reported a week ago in The Hill, a political newspaper and website that covers Capitol Hill, represent about $4.5 million in direct federal spending in Maine.
The NEA spends about $1.2 million in Maine each year. That money supports staff at the Maine Arts Commission, programs like Poetry Out Loud and individual artists and arts organizations, who compete for grants for as little as $500 to $50,000 or more.
The NEH awarded $1.65 million to Maine institutions in 2016 through the Maine Humanities Council. That represents 73 percent of the council’s annual budget. It has distributed $2.9 million in Maine since 2014.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting distributes $1.7 million annually to Maine Public’s TV and radio network. That represents about 14 percent of its annual budget, and pays for programming across the network, said Maine Public CEO Mark Vogelzang.
Like Richard at the Maine Arts Commission, Vogelzang is awaiting more information from Washington about the proposals. “We don’t have an action plan at this point. That would be premature and speculative, but we certainly are paying attention,” he said.
So are the people, who are voicing their concerns to Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District. Pingree sits on the House Appropriations Committee and on the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, which gives her oversight of both the NEA and NEH budgets.
“We have gotten quite a few communications to our office from our constituents, just based on the conversations out there that the NEA could be eliminated,” Pingree said. “I’ve been to a couple of events where I have talked to people in the arts who are very nervous about the impact it could have on the Maine Arts Commission and the amount of money coming into Maine.”
Pledging to fight
Pingree pledged to fight for the arts in Maine and said she senses bipartisan support for arts funding in Washington, particularly among her Republican colleagues from rural states.
“They see the impact of the arts in their home state. This is the kind of funding that, when cuts are proposed, you hear from a huge range of constituents, all ages, all demographics and both sides of the aisle. They will hear loud and clear that the NEA is a very popular agency with their constituents,” Pingree said.
“That said, the president has proposed huge cuts and the elimination of programs. There will be a real battle around this and I cannot predict about the outcome.”
Sen. Angus King has a long record of support for the arts and is a member of the Senate’s bipartisan Cultural Caucus, which advances and promotes the arts, said Scott Ogden, his deputy director of communications. King also is a former host of Maine Watch on Maine Public.
In a statement, he called for Trump to abandon his ideas. “I think the people of Maine understand the value of public broadcasting, as a source of information, education, and entertainment which enriches our lives and the life of the Maine community as a whole,” he said. “While I think it is important to review and re-evaluate how tax dollars are spent, it is my hope that any effort to entirely eliminate funding for the NEA, NEH, or CPB is abandoned because the value these programs have for Americans far exceeds the negligible cost-savings achieved by getting rid of them.”
Support of elected leaders
In a statement, Sen. Susan Collins noted her role on the Appropriations Committee and her work to secure “essential funding” for the arts. “I am a strong advocate for the arts and humanities, which add so much to the quality of education and enrich our society,” she said.
In an email, Brendan Conley, press secretary for Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, said Poliquin “supports the children’s educational mission and focused programming at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.”
Portland Stage Company receives between $10,000 and $15,000 a year directly from the NEA and up to $20,000 from the Maine Arts Commission. Portland Stage uses the money in a variety of ways, including wages for actors. In 2016, it received $10,000 directly from the NEA to support the world premiere of “String Around My Finger,” a new play by Brenda Withers that will be staged beginning April 4.
Without that money, it would be harder to commission new work, said the theater’s executive and artistic director, Anita Stewart. “The government support is a tremendous help for an organization that works to pay artists a living wage and keep ticket prices affordable so that our community can see the work we create,” she said.
Stewart and her development staff could probably replace the money if it went away. It’s a relatively small portion of the theater’s approximately $2 million annual budget. But the loss of NEA would be a blow to the country’s prestige and its investment in the arts and humanities, she said.
More important than the money “is the sense that our government sees the fine arts as an important part of what makes this country great,” she said. “Art gives us a way to get outside ourselves, to see a different way to approach the world, to build empathy for someone who may not be part of our immediate world but who we get to know in a play because we get to see the world from their perspective.”
Portland writer Kari Wagner-Peck received $1,800 from the Maine Arts Commission in 2016 to work on “Not Always Happy,” her performance piece that uses personal narrative to examine the exclusion faced by children with neurological disorders. She also has a memoir coming out in May. She will use the money to hire a director and videographer.
She is furious about the rumored elimination of the NEA. “This move is reminiscent of (President Ronald) Reagan and his attempts to stamp out the NEA, and for the same reasons — to stifle art that illuminates both the beauty and the horrors, to point out the contradictions of life,” she said. “Then it was aimed at gay artists and AIDS among others. Art brings many things to a free society including dissension. Trump is smart enough to know a funded, amplified artist community is a real threat to him.”
NEA makes art possible
The NEA and state arts agencies like the Maine Arts Commission make it possible for artists like her to work, she said. “I don’t make money from my grant support. The money I receive makes it so I don’t have to pay out-of-pocket expenses for a director and videographer. My husband and I are not in a position to fund my work,” Wagner-Peck said.
With her play, she hopes to change the way people perceive someone with Down syndrome. If the arts funding goes away, she would not be able to finish the project.
“If that money is lost we lose art created by a diverse community of artists making provocative and meaningful art,” she said. “The only ones left to create art are people with means. The NEA supports artists like myself because they understand challenging culture is important and necessary to change.”
The Maine Humanities Council receives about 73 percent of its annual $1.2 million budget from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
A loss of funding would “be a tectonic kind of shift for us,” said Hayden Anderson, the council’s executive director. “We have a terrific amount at stake. We would have much less capacity to do our work around the state of Maine.”
Through the Maine Humanities Council, $145,000 in NEH money funded the council’s 14th Amendment project in 2016, which challenged artists and humanities organizations to create work relating to the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It granted the Maine State Museum $275,000 to digitize 100,000 pages of historic Maine newspapers. Another $300,000 will help the Maine Historical Society install a solar energy system at a warehouse storage facility that it jointly operates with the Portland Public Library.
Since 2013, the NEH has given the University of Maine $339,400 to digitize an unpublished Penobscot language dictionary, create a revised and expanded database and prepare a web-based and print dictionary.
Anderson said many Maine residents have contacted his office with questions and concerns. “We are telling them that we are getting our strategy ready and keeping our powder dry,” he said.
The budget process will play out in Washington in late winter or early spring, when President Trump submits his spending plan to Congress. That’s when the details of his proposals will emerge. Pingree’s position on the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee is important, Anderson said, because that will be the first chance for people to speak up. “The place where it affects us from the very beginning, Rep. Pingree is right in that room,” he said.
If cuts or programs are on table, the arts community will base its argument on economic development and rural connectivity. The national arts advocacy organization Americans for the Arts sent its members an action plan, and urged them to attend Arts Advocacy Day March 20 and 21 in Washington.
“The arts are at least a $400 million industry in Maine, and that is just on the non-profit side. When combined with the creative industries, it’s much higher,” Richard said. “And there are at least 11,000 jobs associated with the arts in Maine, which is also significant.”
Maine Public will argue about the importance of TV and radio across the state, especially in rural areas. Of each dollar that comes to Maine from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 75 cents supports television operations because TV is more expensive than radio, Vogelzang said. Maine’s congressional delegation understands the importance and expense of providing TV and radio signals in remote areas, he said. “It’s a small population, but it’s important to stay connected to the entire state of Maine,” he said.
Anderson said Mainers will respond when called. “We’ll be ready,” he said. “We take the threat very seriously, and it would be a big deal for us if the threat comes to pass. But we have good friends who care about what we do and will support us. The stakes are high. People are paying attention.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: