The NEA Stimulus package is not a “bail out”

The Christmas Foundling

The Christmas Foundling

There’s been unnecessary and uninformed criticism of the National Endowment for the Arts $50 million dollar share of the ginormous $700 billion dollar bailout. Such a teeny slice of that pie to whine about…none of it going to private companies, and none of it enriching CEOs with private planes and limos.

Let me give you a few ideas to ponder. (By the way Taproot Theatre Company, where I’m the producing artistic director, has never gotten an NEA grant so we’re ineligible to apply.) Here we go:

1. The funds do safeguard real jobs, and mostly under-valued (i.e. underpaid)  jobs. In the theatre world, most of my actor, designer and technician friends cobble together a scant living from short term jobs (including acting roles), teaching and odd jobs. It’s a scramble. Every theatre (or dance company, museum, orchestra) worth its salt is doing everything possible to fairly pay its people, short-term employees/guest artists and permanent staff. And permanent staff are radically paid below the market rate of private industry.

2. The grants assist us in surviving this economic storm. At the end of this tough economy, do you want a city with its museums, zoos, orchestras, theatres, ballet/dance companies decimated? We do need our industries and schools to survive, but we also need the vital ingredients of a healthy, whole society including the Arts where we learn about living, ourselves and one another.

3. We use those funds to keep the doors open to people in need …NOW. Again, all the arts organizations I know are thinking of ways to stay affordable and accessible to people during times like this. Free shows, “Pay What You Can” shows, discounts for students and senior citizens, deals for university and under-25 young adults – we recognize that people need a night out to laugh, cry, ponder, celebrate, reflect and connect with others. Actually we’re always doing that (!!) but in these anxious times people need a renewed if not urgent access to reflection and diversion. (In Taproot Theatre’s case, we’re still running without a patron saint/major grant picking up the tab for most of these efforts. We’re on the line to raise $750,000 to balance the books in 2009.)

Around here – Seattle  – I know one of our largest theatres is cutting their budget by a third. Most are laying people off, mandating unpaid furloughs and cutting programs. As one of a cadre of mid-sized theatres, my peers have trimmed budgets, leadership have taken unpaid weeks off, and more. Planning for 2010 includes small shows that we hope also “sell” well, but small shows means fewer acting jobs too. In case you miss my point here: we, non-profit arts organizations, are accustomed to cutting budgets, squeezing every bit of value out of a buck, and still working to extend ourselves and missions to be a good thing in the lives our audiences.

So, if anyone around you trash-talks the NEA funding, tell ’em to back off.

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