March 21, 2017 at 1:51 pm PST | by Joey DiGuglielmo
The arts in peril?
arts funding, gay news, Washington Blade

A scene from Cincinnati Opera’s world premiere production of ‘Fellow Travelers’ by Gregory Spears and Greg Pierce that depicts 1950s life for gays in the federal government. (Photo by Philip Groshong; courtesy Cincinnati Opera)

Artists and art advocates are apoplectic that President Trump’s proposed federal budget, released last week, contains not a cent for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the federal arts funding agency that has benefited many LGBT artists.

It was reported in January that Trump was considering privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and eliminating the NEA and National Endowment for the Humanities as part of a wider program of federal budget cuts. While things are status quo for now — like most federal agencies, the NEA is operating under a continuing resolution for fiscal year 2017 that goes through April — many in the arts world are concerned.

“The grants and programs that the NEA administers are powerful examples of how the arts are a vital and valuable part of our everyday lives,” Victoria Hutter, assistant director for press/public affairs for the NEA, wrote in an e-mail to the Blade. “In communities across the nation, NEA-supported projects ensure that the arts are accessible to all Americans through arts education, healing arts and arts-based community development, as well as through projects that feature dance, music, visual arts, literature, folk and traditional arts and more.”

Established by Congress in 1965, the NEA is the independent federal agency that works to give Americans the opportunity to participate in and experience the arts. Its funding is project-based and goes to thousands of nonprofits each year, along with partnerships and special arts initiatives, research and other support that contribute to the “vitality of our neighborhoods, students and schools, workplace and culture.” The NEA is the only funder, public or private, that provides equal access to the arts in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories, supporting artistic endeavors of all kinds.

For fiscal year 2016, the NEA’s $147.9 million budget was about .004 percent of the federal budget. About 80 percent of that appropriation is distributed as grants and awards to organizations and individuals across the country. About 40 percent is awarded directly to states while about 60 percent goes to organizations and individuals directly. About 40 percent of NEA-supported activities occurred in high-poverty neighborhoods and 33 percent went to serve low-income audiences, the NEA says.

Republican administrations have previously been suspicious of the NEA. Ronald Reagan reportedly planned to eliminate the NEA when he came into office in 1981 but changed his mind. Controversies such as “Immersion (Piss Christ),” a photo by Andres Serrano that shows a crucifix photographed in a cup of urine (it was a winner in an NEA-funded art competition) have resulted in NEA funding being down from where it was in the 1990s.

To some arts organizations, NEA money can be a huge boost. There’s no gay- or LGBT-specific category of an NEA grant, but LGBT artists and artists who make art with LGBT themes have long benefited from the funding.

“This is unacceptable,” says Tony Valenzuela, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Lambda Literary Foundation. “By eliminating this funding, the administration is waging an assault on free expression, on the impact the arts have on the economy and the role arts play in education, healing and innovation,” he said in an e-mail. “Grants from the (NEA) have afforded LGBT writers the time and freedom to take risks and small presses the opportunity to publish work that otherwise may have never found an audience.”

Last year, Cincinnati Opera received a $35,000 NEA grant to support the world premiere of “Fellow Travelers,” an opera by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce, adapted from the novel by Thomas Mallon, that depicts 1950s life for gays in the federal government who were forced to stay in the closet or lose their jobs. It enjoyed 10 nearly sold-out performances last June and garnered strong critical reviews.

“We were planning to do this whether or not we had the NEA grant, but it definitely helped,” says Ashley Tongret, director of public relations for Cincinnati Opera. “It wasn’t the largest source of funding or even the tipping point, but it was a wonderful piece of the elaborate puzzle of fundraising that we did.”

Other recent NEA grants that have gone to LGBT-themed work include:

• $60,000 in 2017 to Washington National Opera, part of which will be used to support performances of “Champion” by Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer, a two-act, jazz opera about welterweight boxer Emile Griffith, who was bisexual.

• $10,000 in 2017 to the Chicago Sinfonietta to support a concert program featuring works that explore issues of gender, sexuality and identity. Under the direction of Michael Morgan, David Conte’s work “Elegy for Matthew,” written in memory of hate crime victim Matthew Shepard, will be performed.

• $15,000 in 2016-2017 to Fresh Meat Productions, a San Francisco-based outfit, that plans a national tour of “The Missing Generation,” a dance work by choreographer Sean Dorsey that will “give voice to the early survivors of the AIDS epidemic.”

John Moletress, a multi-disciplinary Los Angeles-based gay actor/artist and founder of force/collision, has benefited from NEA grants indirectly. Often regional arts organizations fund local artists with help from the NEA in a “trickle-down” way.

He relocated to L.A. from D.C. He says most of the artists he sees concerned on social media are from New York.

“The L.A.-based artists I know are not directly affected by NEA and quip at the fact they’re still operating,” he says.

Moletress says even if Trump closes the NEA spigot, queer artists will always continue.

“Queer art making has a history of marginalization which in turn has sparked a revolution of do-it-yourself rigor,” he says. “Ignite us, piss us off, turn us away and we only become individually and communally stronger.”

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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