Berkshire cultural institutions fear impact of Trump’s budget axe
Berkshires — If the Trump administration’s push to eliminate federal funding for the arts and culture becomes a reality, it could have a significant impact on the cultural institutions in the Berkshires, especially in leveraging private funds. But a push is on at Beacon Hill to increase funding that could compensate for the possible losses, though it’s not clear at this point whether it will succeed.
A survey of cultural organizations in the Berkshire reveals an embarrassment of riches — if not in funds in their coffers, then in the value they add to the tourism industry and to the lives of the people who live and work here.
Almost all these cultural organizations say they are appalled at the Trump administration’s stated desire to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
“It would be devastating,” said Selma Josell, who chairs the Cultural Council of Northern Berkshire, which receives all of its $60,000 per year funding from the larger Massachusetts Cultural Council, which in turn receives a good chunk of its own funding from the NEA and other federal sources. “You take away that and there’s not much left.”
Josell’s organization provides arts funding to 11 towns in the northern portion of the county. Much of it is directed toward individual artists (about 80 last year) but MCC funding also enables the Cultural Council of Northern Berkshire to sponsor arts education programs in local schools.
“Their programs are very innovative, very creative,” Josell said. “They allow artists to be creative, to offer their creativity.”
With a budget of $14 million, the MCC gave out 1,992 grants totaling $11,836,391 in fiscal year 2016. According to an MCC report prepared for state Sen. Adam G. Hinds, whose district includes all of Berkshire County and small portions of the three counties to the immediate east, total direct MCC grants to organizations in the district amounted to $784,050 this fiscal year.
MCC Communications Director Gregory Liakos said it is fair to assume that any reduction in MCC funding, either through the loss of federal money or at the state budget level, would be met with a proportionate reduction in MCC grants.
“Though any budget decisions will have to be made by our governing Council, it has always been our practice to apply cuts (and increases) as fairly and equitably across our grant programs as possible,” Liakos told The Edge.
Federal funding for the arts has often been a target for conservatives — some of whom object to the concept on principle, and others who were offended by of a string of controversial works of art funded by the federal government in the 1980s and 90s, including the homoerotic work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, a photographer whose exhibit Piss Christ was deemed by social conservatives to be blasphemous.
The Trump administration’s budget proposal would eliminate the budgets of the NEA and the NEH, which total $148 million apiece. It would also do away with the CPB’s $445 million budget, as well as $230 million for the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which supports libraries and museums across the country.
Those departments comprise a tiny percentage of the federal budget. The NEA’s budget, for example, makes up only 0.004 percent (four thousandths of one percent) of the current $3.9 trillion federal budget. And according to the National Assembly of State Art Agencies, the NEA has already sustained significant budget reductions. Not even accounting for inflation, the NEA appropriation is 12 percent lower than it was in 2010, a decline of $19.5 million.
Meanwhile, Trump wants the Pentagon and Homeland Security Department budgets to rise by 9 and 7 percent respectively, while slashing funding for the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency by roughly 30 percent apiece. Major cuts are also planned for 17 other departments.
Margaret Keller, executive director of Community Access to the Arts (CATA), an arts education organization based in Great Barrington, said her group does not currently receive funding from the federal government but did receive a grant in 2009 that funded its “CATA in the Schools” programs, serving students with disabilities in area high schools.
“The legacy of that support is still with us today: NEA support helped us expand at a critical juncture,” Keller said. “CATA now serves students with disabilities in six districts across Berkshire County.”
Farther south at the Sharon Playhouse in Connecticut — a popular destination for many theatre lovers in the Berkshires — Managing Director George Quick did not supply specific numbers. Although none of the playhouse’s funding comes directly from the NEA, Quick reported that some funding comes to other foundations which are then able to fund Sharon because of their own funding and matching gifts via the NEA.
“NEA funding is frequently leveraged through various state agencies to multiply the financial end result,” Quick explained. “If that NEA funding disappears, so do the matches that make that funding so useful.”
Keller of CATA says it’s a misconception that individual donors or private foundations will simply step up to the plate to fill the gap if federal funding for the arts is eliminated, in part because “private donors already do a lot.”
“If federal funding disappears, private dollars will only be able to stretch so far to bridge the difference,” Keller added. “And there will be organizations — valuable, important ones, including many small, innovative nonprofits — who lose big.”
At the mid-sized Mahaiwe Center for the Performing Arts in Great Barrington, Executive Director Beryl Jolly also reports no direct federal funding but a annual grant from the MCC, which according to the MCC was $18,000 last year through the MCC’s Cultural Investment Portfolio Program.
Though the loss of a portion of the MCC’s funding would amount to a fraction of the Mahaiwe’s budget, Jolly characterized the administration’s proposed cuts as potentially “dramatic and devastating in the Berkshires and across the country.”
“This is a creative community that thrives with the inspiration and energy of hundreds of concerts, performances and exhibits throughout the year, as well as the educational and thought-provoking programs created through the NEA,” Jolly said. “All would be jeopardized if the nation no longer celebrated or supported the arts as integral to our democracy.
CATA’s Keller added that the Trump administration’s “proposal completely misses the fact that the arts are not incidental to the economy but are in fact the engine of the economy in many parts of the country — including, of course, Berkshire County.”
The nonprofit community in the Berkshires is indeed a driver of the economy, as demonstrated in detail by a 2009 study by Williams College Prof. Stephen Sheppard. That study, commissioned by the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, found that the nonprofit sector is generating $1.9 billion in the Berkshire County economy every year and employing more than a third of its workforce.
By 2012, that figure had risen to $2.4 billion from the nearly 375 Berkshire County nonprofits, including visitor impact generated by non-profit expenditures. The gross domestic product in Berkshire County that year was $5.6 billion. That more recent report found that nonprofits in the county generate nearly 27,500 jobs, directly or indirectly, for a county population of about 130,000 full-time residents. Those same organizations were responsible for nearly $1.5 billion in expenditures each year.
Some of the biggest attractions in the Berkshires’ cultural scene contribute mightily to the region’s economy. Almost all receive some form of federal funding. Shakespeare & Company in Lenox gets $30,000 directly from the NEA and $25,000 from Shakespeare in American Communities, a partnership between the NEA and Arts Midwest.
“While it’s tempting to talk about the NEA in terms of numbers, and how small a budget actually is allocated to arts organizations, I believe the argument should be based on principle,” Shakespeare & Company Allyn Burrows told The Edge.
“Human beings are naturally conditioned to lean toward cultural stimulation in whatever form, whatever one’s awareness of it. It’s what makes us people, like opposable thumbs. Why rip away something that celebrates and nourishes human expression? Oh, and I defy lawmakers to go a single day without unknowingly using five words invented by Shakespeare.”
The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, which houses and displays nearly 1,000 of the legendary artist’s works, receives about $100,000 per year from the NEA, the NEH and other federal programs. That accounts for about 8 to 10 percent of the museum’s philanthropic income and about 2 percent of its operating budget.
“Loss of these funds would curtail our ability to launch many major new projects of national significance, such as exhibitions that travel across America, education and research that reach local and national school children and preservation of our priceless treasures,” said Laurie Norton Moffatt, the museum’s director and chief executive. “It would also impact our ability to leverage private funds inspired by these projects.”
Over at the Jacob’s Pillow dance festival in Becket, Managing Director Andrea Sholler reports that over the last several years her organization has received $200,000 from the NEA. About $100,000 helps to underwrite the festival itself; the additional $100,000 supports the continued development of the festival’s online platform, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive.
“The loss of the NEA Media Arts grant would mean that the festival would not have the resources to continue to add content to Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive in a meaningful way, as much of that funding supports the scholars who are creating content for the site,” Sholler told The Edge.
Sholler said Jacob’s Pillow would certainly try to find additional sources of funding but its priority would have to be to make up the $100,000 loss to Festival funding.
“These cuts would result in the loss of both seasonal and year-round staff positions,” Sholler lamented.
The summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood in Lenox and Stockbridge, is the granddaddy of the cultural institutions in the Berkshires. In 2015, the latest for which figures were available, the Tanglewood festival brought in more than 315,000 visitors from around the world.
The BSO has an annual budget of some $97 million, of which $125,000 comes from the NEA annually, with about $50,000 to $75,000 specifically for Tanglewood artistic programming, according to Mark Volpe, the BSO’s managing director.
Volpe said the orchestra relies on multiple sources of revenue and support for its many offerings. Consequently, any potential changes to the organization’s NEA funding would not affect its staffing or programming at Tanglewood, or in general.
“That being said, government support in its many forms is critical to the BSO and to the ongoing health and viability of the great wealth of arts and cultural institutions in the city, the state, and the country,” Volpe told The Edge. “We believe this wide spectrum of cultural offerings plays an essential and meaningful role in bringing beauty, inspiration, and new ideas, critical to both our lives as individuals and our shared experiences as citizens of this great country.”
Volpe harkened back to September 29, 1965, when Lyndon Johnson signed the Arts and Humanities Bill in the Rose Garden: “In the long history of man, countless empires and nations have come and gone. Those which created no lasting works of art are reduced today to short footnotes in history’s catalogue.”
As Congress and the Trump administration wrangle over how much to cut from support for the arts and culture, lawmakers representing the Berkshires, along with other officials in Boston, are bracing themselves.
In his budget proposal for fiscal 2018, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed a $14.3 million budget for the MCC, an increase of 2.5 percent. The MCC itself is seeking $16 million, or an increase of $2 million over this year.
State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox) told The Edge it is hard to tell at this point whether the Legislature will honor the governor’s wish to increase the MCC allotment. He said the MCC budget, now at about $14 million, never recovered from the administration of Gov. Jane Swift, who, in her less that two years in office, succeeded in cutting the MCC budget by 74 percent.
“We’ve been very deliberate in making increases over the last few years,” Pignatelli said. “That budget should be well into $20 millions if not $30 millions.”
Pignatelli did not think Baker’s proposed 2.5 percent increase in MCC funding was a response to the Trump administration’s rumblings. The governor’s budget came out in January, well before Trump stated his desire to defund the NEA, NEH, IMLS and CPB.
As you might expect, Pignatelli is a big booster of state spending on tourism in the Berkshires. He said it is well known, for example, that for every dollar that state invests in tourism and culture, $10 goes back to the state in hotels taxes, meals taxes and the purchase of other taxable good and services by visitors.
“You and I would make that investment in a minute,” he told a reporter.
State Sen. Adam Hinds (D-Pittsfield) was elected for the first time this past November, replacing fellow Democrat Ben Downing, but he managed to snag the chairmanship of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development.
Hinds says he has recommended an increase in funding for tourism councils when he has met with Sen. Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) who chairs the Joint Committee on Ways and Means.
“I’ve also asked that $200,000 additional funding be allocated through the Office of Travel and Tourism,” Hinds said in an interview.
Hinds also sits on the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Affairs, which functions as a state legislative liaison to federal officials and will be visiting Washington, D.C., to ask some of these questions.
“How do we advocate for these programs and how do we assess how and where the state needs to make up these shortfalls?” Hinds asked.
But there are challenges for lawmakers on Beacon Hill that eclipse culture and tourism, such as how to close projected budget gaps of hundreds of millions of dollars. Or how to control healthcare costs, which consume almost 40 percent of the state’s nearly $40 billion annual budget.
Hinds described what he sees as “a constant problem” — state revenues are chronically underperforming, even as other economic indicators (unemployment, economic growth) are moving in the right direction.
“We still have a revenue problem,” Hinds explained. “That is the backdrop to all of these conversations. We still struggle to stay above or at our projected revenues.”
Below are other organizations that responded to The Edge’s funding survey on cultural institutions in the Berkshires:
The Berkshire Museum has been fortunate to earn grants from several federal agencies over the years, such as the NEA and IMLS, as well earning grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Mass Humanities that are supported by the NEA and NEH. We also look forward to earning grants from the NSF as we develop a deeper base of science-based programs. The federal, state, and local partnership model established by these entities has been incredibly effective in fostering appreciation for the arts, humanities and sciences and has no doubt helped create a more enlightened and engaged citizenry for our nation.
The Museum believes strongly that national level support for the arts and humanities, as well as scientific research, is vitally important to strengthening the fabric of our local, regional, and national communities. We would be extremely disappointed if these venerable agencies, institutions that have contributed so much to building understanding of what it means to be human, were to disappear. That would be a travesty.
— Van Shields, executive director
We’ve gotten about $120,000-$150,000 from the NEA in the last eight years. The important thing is all of that funding allowed us to do work we could not have otherwise produced — either new work or big musicals. We also received grant money from Mass Humanities, which receives funding from the NEH. We could not have done our 2-day symposium on Race and Bias last year without Mass Humanities funding.
Those grants allow us to take chances, to support new artists or works we could not have done on our own. The NEA is so well thought of it also encourages others to give us funding, knowing the work has the support of the NEA. If we couldn’t do those works, we would have to hire fewer artists, not only on the stage but behind the scenes. Our shows would be smaller, our effect on the community also smaller.
We are creating a plan now. We all must stand up for the arts. The arts can change lives, they can affect the way people think and act — and they create community — something very sorely needed today.
— Julianne Boyd, artistic director
Great Barrington libraries
Our libraries do not receive direct federal funding, but we do receive state funding, which is about $12,000 a year.
However, a significant reduction in federal support for public libraries in Massachusetts, and our country, would likely have a negative impact on our local libraries — we rely on multiple state and national library systems to provide us with access to information, materials, online catalogues, circulation systems, and many other resources.
It is important to realize that while we support the operation of our library primarily from local funds, the library resources and materials are available because we have access to a national library system and are associated with larger library organizations that rely on federal support. This is just one example of how a reduction in federal funds investing in our library system may impact us at our local branch.
— Jennifer Tabakin, Town Manager
Stockbridge Library Association
We do not receive direct federal funding, but these sources come to us indirectly through the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC), which receives funding from IMLS ($3.2 million in the current fiscal year). The MBLC is the agency of state government with the statutory authority and responsibility to organize, develop, coordinate, and improve library services throughout the Commonwealth. MBLC services include Commonwealth eBook collections, Commonwealth catalog (next tier of inter-library loans), databases, Digital Commonwealth, LSTA grants, disaster assistance, and many more, all of which greatly benefit us on the local library level. You can see what MBLC does by visiting their website.
MBLC staff jobs and programs would be cut, the effect of which would trickle down to libraries throughout the state of Massachusetts, and to all states across the nation.
More fundamentally, the small amount of federal funding appropriated each year through NEA, the NEH, the IMLS or the CPB makes a huge difference in the cultural, artistic, and civic life of our communities. Libraries in particular do so much with very little; in fact, according to Library Research Service, for every dollar spent on libraries, more than $5 are returned to the community. This is seen in not only the books and movies available to borrow, but also in the Internet access we provide, the storytimes and speaker series we host, the historical records and artifacts we preserve for our town, and the spaces we have for people to gather together and connect with others. Eliminating funding for libraries cuts at the very fabric of our communities.
— Katherine O’Neil, director
Berkshire Theatre Group
A portion of Berkshire Theatre Group’s state funding comes from federal sources. We serve 13,000 school children throughout Berkshire County and beyond through BTG PLAY’S!, Berkshire Theatre Group’s year-round education program. A portion of BTG’s PLAY’S! programs are funded by the 21st Century Community Learning Center, and if this initiative is eliminated, many of our programs will be gravely affected.
The argument that it’s ‘wasteful spending’ is ridiculous, considering that we give back to the community in terms of education, cultural development and economic development. The restoration and subsequent reopening of The Colonial Theatre was possible thanks in large part to federal, state, and city funding. An economic impact study conducted by the Williams College Center for Creative Community Development in 2008 found that in the theatre’s second year of operations, The Colonial Theatre had an economic impact of almost $4 million annually. Investing in the arts is also an investment in the economy.
We have introduced a new, bi-monthly video series, No Boundaries in Art. Featuring BTG’s Artistic Associates, and members of the community, this video series is a platform for expression of freedom of speech through short stories, poems and personal reflection. There cannot be boundaries in the arts. We do not discriminate. Our buildings are sanctuaries for everyone to tell their stories. We do not discriminate in which stories we will tell, which culture we may seek to know. We are enriched and indeed transformed for the better by this creative engagement.
We are trying to help our communities understand what the arts can do for them. If we no longer have the funds, people would have to think about what it would look like if all of our buildings went away.
— Kate Maguire, Artistic Director/CEO