Why The Arts Budget Debate Matters More To Georgia | WABE 90.1 FM

Why The Arts Budget Debate Matters More To Georgia

Sep 5, 2017

Congress is back in session this week, and lawmakers are supposed to pass a budget by the end of the month. One matter to decide is whether to preserve funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

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President Donald Trump wants to zero out the NEA's budget. An initial House plan ignores that request, but Georgia arts groups are taking the threat seriously. 

A good place to see NEA dollars at work is Atlanta's Center for Puppetry Arts. For years, it's received funds for various shows.

Puppetry Center development director Heather Karellas says, “Typically our NEA grants range from 10,000 to 30,000. They do cover a portion of building the puppets, building the sets -- all of the work that goes into producing those shows.”

Karellas says, without that money, the center would have to make noticeable cuts.

"In terms of our creative vision and our creative leadership, I couldn't tell you how that conversation would play out -- except that it would be a difficult conversation, and we know that there would be things that people would miss.”

The puppetry center has joined a campaign to urge federal lawmakers to protect the NEA. In fact, every major arts organization in Atlanta is involved in it. 

They're concerned because Georgia already ranks 48th for state arts funding. Arts groups here only get about one dollar from the state for every five they get from the federal government.

Head of the Georgia Council for the Arts, Karen Paty, explains. “The loss of that funding would be significant to the really amazing work that is happening."

She knows all about that work since the council helps distribute state and federal funds. 

Paty points out that the NEA supports projects in every Congressional district, even the rural areas that tend to have fewer resources.  

"Private philanthropy in arts and culture is really focused on major metropolitan areas."

That makes the NEA crucial for certain rural projects, but some people wouldn't mind if a town in the North Georgia mountains didn't get its ceramics exhibit this year. The NEA just chipped in $10,000 for one in Rabun County.

Former Congressman Lynn Westmoreland is among those who want to defund the NEA and stop putting tax dollars toward those kinds of initiatives. 

He says, though it sparks debate to say it, he knows others in Congress think like he does.

“The majority of people that I know that want to defund the NEA is, you know, does the government really have that responsibility to decide what's art and what's not art?"

Westmoreland also has a response for people who point out the NEA gets just .004 percent of the total budget, roughly $150 million. 

"That's a lot of money, I mean, and those little things are the ones that add up, and it's so hard to cut a lot of the big things."

So, will fiscal conservatives influence the budget talks in Congress?  Politicians have been threatening the NEA for decades, and it's still around.  

But, one of the most powerful caucuses that wants to eliminate the NEA is the Republican Study Committee in the House. It has more than 150 members, including eight representatives from Georgia. House Speaker Paul Ryan has been negotiating with that group as he wrangles votes to pass the budget.