Fretting about funding: Federal cuts would adversely affect many local arts organizations

Courtesy photo / The Blair County Arts Foundation is bringing a touring production of “The Rainbow Fish” to the Mishler Theatre on Tuesday as part of its Family Theatre program. Nearly 10 percent of that program’s budget comes from the National Endowment for the Arts, which President Trump proposes to eliminate.

A melange of funding supports local community theater, the symphony, art education and other similar programs. But President Donald Trump’s proposed ax to the federal arts budget could mean a 10 percent reduction in what groups get.

No one is suggesting that museums will close or theaters will go dark, as arts advocates sorted through Trump’s preliminary budget released Thursday. And, it’s hard to tell exactly what local groups get from the National Endowment for the Arts because most federal funding flows through the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (PCA).

But the Blair County Arts Foundation, for one, knows exactly how much it could lose if the NEA is eliminated. This spring, Congress will consider the spending plan that also eliminates federal funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and other arts- and humanities-minded agencies.

The BCAF has received $10,000 a year in direct grants over the last three years for its Family Theatre program, and it was invited to apply for another $10,000 for the 2017-18 season, executive director Kate Shaffer said.

“Clearly, this has been a huge contribution to the early childhood outreach program we provide, as Family Theatre at the Mishler productions serve 10,000 to 15,000 students and their families annually,” Shaffer said. “NEA support constitutes nearly 10 percent of the Family Theatre budget, and it would be very challenging to replace these funds.”

The Altoona Symphony Orchestra received a $10,000 direct grant from the NEA for its “Day in the Arts” program with the Altoona Curve last year, the first such NEA funding it had received in more than a decade, said ASO executive director Pamela Snyder Etters. ASO is pursuing another grant for a “major educational and community project” that would benefit the more than 16,000 K-12 students in Blair County and the more than 125,000 residents, she added.

“I can’t say the symphony has relied on (NEA funding), but it certainly provided a significant boost to what we were able to offer,” Snyder Etters said. “It gave us some forward momentum. It would kill us to put the brakes on that momentum. … Should the NEA be cut from the federal budget, we would be forced to cut back on many of our outreach programs.”

In all, the NEA made 110 direct grants to Pennsyl­vania individuals and organizations for a total of almost $2.5 million in fiscal year 2016, according to the PCA. That is in addition to nearly $950,000 that goes to the PCA’s “state-partnership” funding program, which is 10 percent of the PCA annual budget, explained deputy director of communications Heather Doughty.

“These are state grants, but the PCA’s work across the Commonwealth would not be possible without NEA partnership funding,” she said.

In all, the PCA shows that Blair County got $41,800 in 2015-16. And Cambria County — home to the headquarters of the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art (SAMA), Cresson Lake Playhouse (CLP) and the Pennsylvania Rural Arts Alliance (PRAA), all in Loretto, along with several art centers in Johnstown –got $176,091.

The PRAA, while headquartered in Cambria, serves seven counties, including Blair. That is how the Altoona Community Theatre got $4,174 that same year ($12,488 over the last three years) from the PCA.

Other Blair County programs to benefit from the state partnership funding include the Allegheny Ballet Company, Blair Concert Chorale and the Greater Altoona Economic Development Corporation for its “Summer Sounds” program.

Separate from those ongoing programs are grants for projects that typically are only funded for a year or two, explained Becky Catelinet, executive director for the Rural Arts Alliance in Loretto.

For example, the Allegheny Ukulele Kollective got almost $2,300 over two years to jump-start its lending program at the Hollidaysburg Area Public Library. Other beneficiaries include the Hollidaysburg Community Band, the Altoona Chorus of Sweet Adelines and a classical music project at Penn State Altoona.

SAMA has not received direct NEA funding for “well over a decade,” although it applied and was denied a grant for its 2015 archival storage project, said Gary Moyer, executive director. That project was completed thanks to foundations, individual donors and “cost management,” he said.

The funds through the PCA pay for the museum’s art education program that serves more than 10,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade in Blair, Bedford, Cambria, Fayette, Somerset and Westmoreland counties, Moyer said. This fiscal year that totaled $85,000, which is “a far cry from the $250,000 we used to receive,” he said.

Eliminating the NEA probably would have a “ripple effect” on PCA funding to SAMA, he said, denying many students exposure to and experience in the arts, he said.

Moyer said that SAMA would look for additional support from other sources, but “cuts in federal funding would impact program delivery and necessitate reductions in staff.

“SAMA requires a combination of a generous donor pool, successful fundraisers, foundation grants and government dollars annually to offer a robust exhibition schedule and to provide meaningful arts programming to the people of this region,” he said.

Cathy Seymour, business director for Cresson Lake Playhouse, says she doesn’t believe her small theater group would suffer much, although it has received funding through PCA.

“Luckily, Pennsylvania is run by a governor who has worked to reduce government waste rather than cut important programs like the arts,” she said. “However, with that being said, seeing the NEA and/or NEH defunded and possibly eliminated is very disheartening to an organization such as CLP. These moves will harm larger arts programs than ours and hurt their chances for survival. The loss of any arts program, big or small, is a great loss to our country as it’s what feeds the soul and helps to nourish what’s best in humanity.”

But the symphony’s Snyder Etters said she is concerned with Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal to remove arts funding from the general fund and into a bond program.

“That’s not a good idea,” she said. “A bond is unpredictable. … And it has to be in the general fund. Otherwise, it gets forgotten.”

She remains optimistic, though, because arts programs are “very popular” in the General Assembly.

“On the national level, I’m not so sure,” she said.

Congressman Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, still was mulling Trump’s proposed budget Thursday afternoon, said his aide Casey Contres. He declined to say whether Shuster would support cutting arts programs, but hinted that he would support Trump’s plan.

“This is a strong start for continuing our shared goals of reducing the size of government and growing the economy,” according to a Shuster statement provided by Contres.

At WPSU in University Park, director of broadcasting Greg Peterson said there is “tremendous bipartisan support in Congress” for public broadcasting, such as his Public Broadcasting System affiliate.

“We’ve been zeroed out before; (former Speaker of the House) Newt Gingrich zeroed us out,” he said. “We’ve been under the gun forever.”

But when citizens realize that federal funding of public broadcasting breaks down to $1.35 per person per year, “it’s a small investment just in the children’s programming alone (that) is well worth the price of admission,” Peterson said. “We’re not really worried.”

Jared Frederick, associate professor of history at Penn State Altoona, is concerned that if funding to the National Endowment for the Humanities is cut as proposed, his students will lose valuable resources.

“These range from musical concerts, traveling museum exhibits, historical document digitization, public art and so much more,” he said. “My students use the likes of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which offers compelling primary sources relating a tumultuous time in American history. Those are forgotten stories otherwise.”

He noted that NEH also helped underwrite popular Ken Burns’ films, including the critically acclaimed and popular “The Civil War” mini-series first broadcast on PBS in 1990 and re-formatted and re-released multiple times since. It supports PBS, as well.

“Historically speaking, the NEH has been a political football since its inception as part of Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ initiative in the 1960s,” Frederick said.

But, like Peterson, he believes most Americans are willing to spend a few quarters for it.

“People can argue that arts, history and literature don’t matter,” Frederick said. “Yet, events such as the Renaissance show us that all facets of life flourish when we support arts and humanities. History tends not to judge us kindly when we don’t.”

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.