About a week ago, I had the pleasure of hosting the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, William “Bro” Adams, at the Portland Museum of Art, giving him a tour of the newly reopened museum. This was no happenstance: The NEH awarded the PMA a $400,000 grant for our multiyear project, “Your Museum, Reimagined,” which allowed the museum to reinstall every piece of artwork and reposition itself as a welcoming space for everyone.
As I walked with Adams through our galleries, the conversation kept coming back to our community. “A little money goes a long way at a regional museum like the Portland Museum of Art,” he said, “which is so much more significant in the lives of local citizens than the giant urban museums.” That struck a chord with me, because one of the central tenets that currently drives the PMA is to connect and engage with our community in meaningful ways.
These grants and awards do not simply benefit cultural institutions like the PMA, but allow the museum to hire local tradespeople, businesses and experts throughout our community. I can’t begin to count all the electricians, contractors, architects, tech developers, educators, painters and designers who helped make the newest iteration of the PMA a success. The National Endowment for the Humanities, along with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services – both of which support the museum as well – provide funding to important projects that spur economic development, provide jobs and reverberate throughout the cultural economy. Make no mistake, national endowments like the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services are critical to the growth of our region, the success of our businesses and the future of our people.
When these endowments were created in 1965, they were done with the acknowledgment that our society must fully value the arts and humanities and work to advance our cultural landscape. “An advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone,” says the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, “but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future.”
More recently, the Maine Office of Tourism has launched campaigns to position Maine’s cultural offerings alongside the well-known tourism narratives of outdoor activities and our food industry. This has been imperative to the PMA in recent years, and we have seen an increase in visits from tourists from New York and Boston, D.C. and Dallas, and everywhere in between. The message is clear: our culture is unique and a powerful contributor to our economy, and we need to welcome that.
The Portland Museum of Art is not alone in this important national discussion. There are hundreds of organizations throughout all 16 counties in Maine that receive support from the NEA and NEH. The eight museums along the Maine Art Museum Trail have all benefited from these programs. Small projects – including the redesign of Congress Square Park just across the street from the museum, and the research and development of the St. John Valley cultural heritage trail guide in Madawaska – have also been positively affected by the endowments. But unfortunately, the NEA and NEH are just a few of the federal organizations that are facing proposed defunding. Our friends at Maine Public are also at risk, as are countless others who will bear the brunt of this most recent push to reduce support for these endowments.
As with any discussion on federal spending and national budgets, it is difficult to see the forest for the trees when talking about the value of cultural organizations like these. However, I feel that speaks to their vast and immeasurable impact, rather than an ill-informed notion pointing to government excess or waste. To understand their importance and embrace their missions, we need only to take a walk through our communities, visit a local business and speak with our neighbors. Supporting the arts and humanities demonstrates the pride we have in our culture – America’s culture. We cannot be great without them.