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Killing the National Endowments Won’t Kill Black Voices and Black Art

President Trump's administration has promised to put the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) on the chopping block.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPS) could be privatized this year as a part of the plans. Now that the proposed budget has been released the threat is real, with elimination of the NEA's budget of $145 million per year, the NEH also being defunded to the tune of $145 million and the scrapping of the $445 million budget for CPS.

And while it might slow down funding and support, Black artists will most likely tighten their resolve to continue to create. Cuts won’t kill Black art or the artists who use their various mediums to give insight into the world they live in.

There have always been threats to shut these programs down, since President Lyndon B. Johnson first signed them into law in 1965. NEA funds may just be a small fraction of one percent of the federal budget, however they have been used to support writers, visual artists, actors and musicians.

These funds also drive job creation in the arts for lighting crews, catering companies, directors, and costume and set designers and others who help to bring production to the stage. The NEA estimates that the arts create about 4.7 million jobs.

While the NEA provides small individual grants to artists, it distributes the bulk of its funds to arts serving organizations to support community art, such as local theater, arts education, and healing arts programs for military veterans.

Image: Janice Bass Dorsey
Janice Bass Dorsey of Grand Rapids, Michigan stanmds next to her exhibit "SOWN, #Her-Story" at the ArtPrize competition. Janice Bass Dorsey

According to the NEA, nearly 40 percent of its work takes place in high-poverty and diverse neighborhoods, opening up access to theater and visual arts. And while the NEA may be the most visible arts funding agency, most contributions to the arts come from private philanthropy, sponsorships and partnerships, as well as individual donations.

Sharnita C. Johnson is a Program Director for the New Jersey–based Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, where she focuses on the arts. “Through the grants to arts-serving organizations, a lot of NEA money is distributed to local arts organizations in communities,” she explains.

According to Johnson some of the grants go to underserved organizations and communities of color. She also says that NEA money impacts the accessibility to theater for many including people of color, by keeping prices affordable.

“With every new administration, cuts are always a danger,” Johnson says, adding the arts are often already under-resourced at the local level. “Without funding for the arts, many organizations will close, and we will lose critical parts of our collective story and the creative experience.”

As she sees it, “the arts are the hub of civic and cultural engagement and education.”

Janice Bass Dorsey, 61, has been an artist since she was a child in Gary, Indiana. “I do it because that’s what I do.”

Over the years her art has taken many forms. Her most recent, is called SOWN #HERstory, a series of stories of women’s lives told through hand-made felted dolls. It was through the NEA–funded ArtPrize competition that she was finally able to display her work to a large audience for the first time. Yet it was challenging for her to get the funds to apply to be a part of the city-wide event. Ever resourceful, she raised the money through family and friends as well as sponsors. Now she is looking to find a permanent home for her installation, while she continues to create new works.

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn is visual artist who uses documentary photography as her medium. Her work has been supported by NEA dollars. “A few years back I photographed a series of Black women writers for an exhibition titled, Her Word as Witness,” Barrayn says of the exhibition, which is mounted at the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University.

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This iteration of the exhibition was made possible by the NEA Big Reads Grant.

Bass Dorsey and Barrayn agree that even a small sliver of funding that comes to Black artists to produce art is hard to come by. “Artists of color are woefully underfunded when it comes to the larger institutions dolling out grants and awards,” Barrayn says of the lack of equity in the arts. “We aren't as financially supported as our white counterparts. So, the support we do get is crucial.”

Even though the majority of the grants that get passed on to the communities are small, Barrayn says local arts organizations will feel the impact if the NEA is dismantled.

“Artists that rely on re-grant programs will have to find alternative sources for funding, which is already a difficult task,” she adds.

Barrayn like many artists and arts activists’ skepticism about dismantling this legacy agency lies with the new administration. “The threats to cut funding isn't a new phenomenon, but we are currently faced with an administration that doesn't reflect the overall sentiments of Americans who value art and support artists,” she says.

But Barrayn isn’t disheartened. “I believe that America values art and the welfare of artist's lives, she says. “We value free speech and freedom of expression, which is why the NEA has been established and lasted for so long.”

It’s why Black art always lives to teach and move another day.