Federal Budget Cuts Cultural Programs in the Twin States

  • Participants Gayle Bielanski, of Hartland, Vt., left, Brian Erskine, of Lebanon, N.H., Carole Travers, of Lebanon, and Eunie Guyre, also of Lebanon, talk and look over each other's art during AVA’s Senior Art Program on April 13, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Eunie Guyre, of Lebanon, N.H. left and Betsy Murray, of Enfield, N.H. paint during the AVA’s Senior Art Program on April 13, 2017 in Lebanon. Murray had never painted before when she came to the program with a friend two and a half years ago. She nows sells her paintings. "This has been a huge change in my life," she said. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rosa Guzman, of Plainfiled, N.H., works with instuctor Murray Ngoima at AVA’s Senior Art Program in Lebanon, N.H., on April 13, 2017. Guzman was the first person to walk into the room when the program started in 2013. Mgoima has been teaching for the program since the start. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • In a couple of hours, Karen Fessenden, of West Lebanon, N.H. was pretty far along on her painting at the AVA’s Senior Art Program on April, 13, 2017. Fessenden and her husband have been coming to the program for about half a year. They said they look forward to coming every week. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bob Cavalieri, of Enfield, N.H., paints wildlife on a lampshade during the AVA’s Senior Art Program on April 13, 2017 in Lebanon, N.H. The program, in partnership with the Grafton County Senior Citizens Center, meets all day on Thursdays. Cavalieri has been attending the program for about two years. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, April 14, 2017

Every Thursday a van, one of five operated by the New Hampshire State Library, pulls up to the Enfield Town Library to deliver materials requested through the Inter Library Loan (ILL) program. The delivery typically will include books, DVDs, audio books, state reports and the occasional flyer from the N.H. Fish and Game Department.

This week, said librarian Melissa Hutson, the van returned books that had been borrowed from the library, as well as dropping off requested books on homesteading and parenting, a James Patterson mystery and, for a book club that meets at the library, copies of a novel by Louisa May Alcott.

The library itself serves about 2,000 patrons. People come to the library to borrow materials, do research, read magazines and journals online, gain access to the state’s Downloadable Books Consortium, scan the statewide New Hampshire Union Access catalog or take advantage of the library’s high speed wireless. The library also offers reading programs to school children.

Last year, the Enfield library sent out 751 items through the state’s ILL service, and received in return 981 items, Hutson said.

But Inter Library Loan, which is vital in states such as New Hampshire and Vermont where small-town libraries are the norm, is one of scores of public programs under threat of either elimination or greatly reduced services in the 2018 federal budget proposed a month ago by President Donald Trump.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), which, through the Library Services and Technology Act, directs money to state libraries nationwide to support such services as ILL, is on the chopping block. So are the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

If the Enfield Library no longer had access to ILL, but had to instead buy books, DVDs or audio books, or pay postage for requested materials, “I can’t even begin to imagine what it would cost. To have the van service is such a huge thing for us,” Hutson said.

According to the Washington Post, in 2016 the combined budgets of the NEA, the NEH, the CPB and IMLS represented approximately 0.02 percent of the nearly $4 trillion national budget. The expenditures were: $148 million for the NEA, $148 million for the NEH, $445 million for the CPB, and $230 million for the IMLS.

Although the NEA, NEH and CPB (founded in the mid-1960s) and the IMLS (founded in 1996, but dating back to the 1950s) have in the past three decades fought off calls for greatly reduced funding, and experienced severe budget cuts, most recently in the aftermath of the Great Recession, this is the first time that a president has proposed stripping them completely of federal funding.

The Trump budget’s slash and burn approach to the agencies that support the arts and humanities has been met with dismay and bafflement by arts organizations, libraries, artists and writers around the nation.

This includes administrators in the Twin States and in the Upper Valley, which boasts a robust arts scene and whose rural and sometimes remote character makes the work that libraries and arts organizations do to bring the world to their constituents even more essential.

Approximately 10 to 15 percent of the annual budget for AVA Gallery and Art Center comes through grants supported by federal money funneled to the states, said Trip Anderson, executive director of the Lebanon nonprofit.

“It won’t be devastating, but it will certainly have a dramatic impact on what we can do,” he said.

The NEA, NEH and IMLS have contributed to such AVA programming as Art Lab (a program for adults with special needs), Senior Art programming, and after-school programming for middle school students, which are all offered at low or no cost to the community, Anderson said.

In anticipation of, if not actual elimination of these agencies, then severe cutbacks in funding, AVA has begun to look at other sectors to help make up the difference, Anderson said.

But what alarms Anderson the most, he said, is the implicit message he believes is being sent by the Trump budget: that the arts and humanities don’t matter.

“There are so many things that art provides. It provides so much help and healing to so many communities, at-risk communities, special needs communities,” he said. Further, Anderson pointed out the arts also drive local economies.

“Ask the owners of Three Tomatoes or Salt hill how their business increases when there’s an event at Opera North or the (Lebanon) Opera House,” Anderson said.

In 2013, the NEA, in partnership with the Bureau of Economic Analysis, issued its first report on how arts and culture contribute to the U.S. economy. In 2012, the so-called creative economy had an impact of $698 billion, or 4 percent of GDP.

In 2012, a study of New Hampshire’s nonprofit arts organizations conducted by Americans for the Arts showed a $115 million annual impact in the state: $53 million in direct spending by the organizations, and $62 million by their audiences.

In Vermont, the NEH provides about half of the Vermont Humanities Council’s (VHC) annual budget of $1.3 million, said Peter Gilbert, its executive director. Last year, the VHC co-sponsored with 375 other state schools and organizations some 825 events in 127 different Vermont towns, Gilbert said.

Although the council raises a lot of money on its own compared to some other state councils, Gilbert said, an “elimination (of the NEH) or dramatic reduction (in funding) would have an enormous effect on us. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do. ... We would have to eliminate certain programs completely.”

Among the popular programs that the council has designed with federal aid are the Speakers Bureau (which brings authors and artists to public talks), Vermont Reads, literacy programs for under-served populations, and the lecture series First Wednesdays, which is held in nine communities in the state.

Recently, First Wednesdays brought to the Norwich Congregational Church the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Hackett Fischer, who spoke about Paul Revere, an event that attracted people from all over Vermont, said Lucinda Walker of the Norwich Public Library, which sponsored the talk.

If programs such as First Wednesdays disappear, Walker said, the range of what libraries can offer will narrow, and that also includes summer reading programs, ILL and access to online resources, a total expenditure for the library of about $5,000 annually.

“That would be hard to make up and I consider that we’re in a very generous community,” Walker said. “We can all have bake sales until the cows come home, but that federal funding is so crucial to what we can offer people.”

There is a larger issue beyond funding, Gilbert said, and that is the question of our national identity, which is linked closely to our arts and culture.

“If you care about American heritage ... it’s important that the population knows its history, its aspirations and ideals. The federal government not only has a role but also a huge stake in that question,” he said.

Gilbert pointed to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., which is lined with museums that tell the story of the United States: among them the National Gallery of Art, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the National Museum of the American Indian, all of which receive some form of federal funding.

“They are there to convey the history and greatness of our country to visitors from abroad and to Americans — and they’re free,” Gilbert said.

New Hampshire can claim both the first state library in the nation, in Portsmouth in 1717, and the first free public library supported through taxation in the nation, founded in 1833 in Peterborough, said Michael York, who is both the state librarian and the acting commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Cultural Resources. Currently, there are 234 public libraries in New Hampshire, one for every town in the state, said York.

“Not anybody else can make that claim, not McDonalds, not Dunkin’ Donuts,” York said.

Which is why the looming threat of a defunct IMLS would have such a disastrous impact, York said. The state library receives 50 percent of its funding from the IMLS.

Take away half of the New Hampshire State Library’s funding and services and staff would be reduced, York said. There are, for example, “five ILL vans on the road every day doing 18 stops each. They move hundreds of thousands of items every year,” York said.

This is critical in a state, he said, where 75 percent of the libraries serve populations of fewer than 7,500 people, which often means that these libraries are resource-challenged, and rely on the state library to supply the kinds of resources and services they are unable to muster, York said.

And, York added, whether urban or rural, all state libraries across the country stand to lose funding if the IMLS is erased.

“You have wonderful but small libraries, but they rely on being able to supplement their libraries by borrowing from others,” said Michael Grace, the director of the Fiske Free Library in Claremont, which serves some 13,000 people and claims 5,000 to 6,000 card holders.

“It’s an easy target to take some of these things away, but my view is that the benefits to the public and the community, far outweigh the cost at the national level,” Grace added.

John Stomberg, the director of the Hood Museum in Hanover, said that the proposed axing of the agencies will likely hurt rural areas more than urban.

“A lot of that money gets sifted down into smaller and smaller communities. It goes deep into the fabric of American life, it’s not just grants going to large institutions,” he said.

The Hood, which last month signed a statement on funding for the arts sent by the Northeast Small College Art Museum Association, had applied for an NEA grant to support a significant exhibition that would be part of the museum’s reopening in 2019. Now it’s uncertain what will happen, Stomberg said.

Larger museums may be able to withstand the loss of federal funding, but for smaller museums it could make the difference, Stomberg said, between being a good and a great museum.

And the point of receiving federal grant money is not to foster some people’s notions about elitist high culture, but to dispel them, he added.

“If you write these grants, you can see that the only way to succeed is to be an open-minded institution that is open to the public. They’re about opening them up. ... I think the NEA and NEH role is to make sure that culture is shared across all economic levels,” Stomberg said.

There does appear to be a disconnect between what the arts actually provide people and the assumption by some that “the arts” are something out of reach, experienced only by people with means, said Virginia Lupi, director of New Hampshire State Council on the Arts.

“People don’t realize that you can’t get through a day with out being in contact with the arts in some way,” Lupi said. “Music, clothing, what you watch on TV, movies: it goes on and on and on.”

In 2016, Lupi said, the total grant money disbursed by the state’s council on the arts was $544,000; of that, the NEA supplied $244,878, approximately 45 percent of the annual budget.

New Hampshire’s Poetry Out Loud competition, which draws nearly 10,000 high school students each year, is supported solely by funds from the NEA, Lupi wrote in an email.

Ditto, the state’s Heritage and Traditional Arts program, which shores up local arts and crafts organizations, farm museums, historical societies and community centers, among others.

“NEA funds are directed in large part to projects, organizations and communities we consider “underserved,” Lupi wrote. Programs that work with veterans, the elderly, young people at risk, and people with disabilities all receive NEA funding via the New Hampshire State Council.

Locally, Opera North in Lebanon receives money from the council, Lupi said, and one of the reasons why is that “they have a very strong educational component which brings opera to kids in really exciting ways. That is part of what we require: there has to be programming that is available to the public.”

There are other factors at play in the proposed elimination of the NEA, NEH and IMLS.

There are genuine philosophical arguments to be made about whether the government should be in the business of funding the arts. Those opposed to federal funding believe that the capitalist marketplace and philanthropy will make up the difference if the government stops funding the arts and humanities.

“There are a lot of people who say it doesn’t affect me directly, so how can this be good for me?” York said. Some people aver they don’t care about, say, bagpipers or contra dancers or quilters or storytellers or art classes for the elderly or writing workshops for people in prison.

“But it makes us a different society if we have those things, or don’t have those things,” York said.

Suspicion of and hostility to the NEA and NEH dates back to the so-called culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s when some politicians railed against using government money to fund art and performance that some found deeply offensive.

The NEA appeared to have drawn lessons from those earlier public relations kerfuffles, and has stayed away from inciting obvious controversy, although it should be pointed out that for each of the handful of grants that elicited a furor among politicians, there were hundreds more that didn’t.

“If you’re worried about getting federal funds don’t put an American flag on the floor and invite people to walk on it,” York said.

There are some commentators, though, who argue, as did a recent New York Times op-ed, that it’s precisely because art often challenges authority or the status quo that some politicians have long had it in for the NEA and NEH.

But Lupi, of the New Hampshire arts council, is cautiously optimistic that members of Congress will stave off the elimination of the NEA, NEH, IMLS and CPB.

The New Hampshire delegation “supports these agencies very strongly,” she said. “There has always been broad bipartisan support for these agencies in Congress.”

In addition, Governor Christopher Sununu mentioned the creative economy in a budget speech, Lupi said. “He is a strong supporter of arts and culture in this state.”

Additionally, a recent report in the New York Times said that 11 House Republicans were among more than 150 members of Congress who have signed a letter calling for a slight increase in federal funds to the NEA.

Lupi said that the council is working with other agencies and councils in the country to advocate for the NEA, NEH and IMLS. “The issue is to start reaching other legislators who may not be as supportive,” she said.

York, who has been state librarian for 20 years, has become accustomed to a constant rumble of noise coming out of Washington about eliminating, chopping, cutting. In 2010, because of the Great Recession, the state library’s budget was substantially cut.

“We never fully recovered, but we never went out of business,” he said. The key now, he added, is to keep a clear head.

“When people panic they tend not to think as clearly as perhaps they should. This is not the time to be attacking people because of their philosophical beliefs on the role or size of government. We have to be positive about what we do, and why it’s important to fund it. Calling people stupid won’t help,” York said.

This winter the Grafton Library was able, with financial help from the New Hampshire Humanities Council and the Friends of the Grafton Public Library, to present a talk by former New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner Steve Taylor, of Meriden, on the state’s 19th-century sheep boom and its lasting influence on the landscape, said librarian Deb Clough.

The Grafton Historical Society also scheduled a performance, sponsored by the N.H. Humanities Council, by Steve Blunt, who portrays one of the Hutchinson Family Singers, a wildly popular 19th-century singing group from New Hampshire that advocated for abolitionism and women’s suffrage. (The performance was rescheduled, due to snow, to June 10).

The library perpetually struggles for funding, Clough said. It hasn’t yet been able to gain access to ILL because the van stops in Canaan instead.

Despite that, she said, they continue to provide services to people who don’t have or can’t afford computers, internet access, books or videos. But, without the funding of the New Hampshire Humanities Council, Clough wonders whether they’d be able to offer such additional programming as Taylor’s historical overview of 19th-century agriculture, or Blunt’s performance.

It’s that web of interconnection, from more remote rural pockets to bigger towns and cities, that is not quantifiable in dollar terms perhaps, but is of enormous value.

“It’s all interwoven. Everything is tied into everything else, particularly when you’re talking about small organizations,” said Norwich Public Library’s Walker.

For her part, said Lupi, she has seen art’s power to transform, engage and electrify individuals and communities that don’t take the arts and humanities for granted the way someone living a metropolitan area might.

“I have seen the value of this public funding and the difference it can make in lives and communities, and without the public funding these programs would not exist,” she said.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.