This past weekend on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Scott Simon talked with David Marcus, a senior contributor to The Federalist and the artistic director of a theater company in New York City, about defunding the National Endowment for the Arts.

Go ahead and listen. I’ll wait. And if you’re angry by the end, don’t blame Scott, he’s just doing what a journalist should. It’s important to know this point of view is out there.

I will say, it’s rich to hear that point of view from a theatre artist in Brooklyn. Or, well, anywhere in the greater New York area. Let me present a different point of view from the heart of Kentuckiana. (Note: I spent many years in the greater New York area. Eighteen years in Indiana, I’m still called “the guy from New York.”)

As someone working in the arts in a rural area–we’re near Louisville and Cincinnati, but far enough away that our county has a total population of just under 25,000–I can say that without the NEA supporting the state arts council and thus the regional arts council, we would not have been able to produce theatre here. Not “would have had to produce more cheaply.” Not produce at all. Moreover, there would not be the arts programs that currently exist here. We established a beachhead when we started, and more groups and artists have been able to build from that with their regional arts grants. Part of why we were able to get money at all when we began was because “there’s no one else in the region doing this work,” i.e. professional live theatre.

The funny thing about living in an economically depressed area, big sponsors aren’t likely to jump up and support live theatre as a “new business springing up.” As it is, most potential supporters and sponsors we’ve dealt with locally look for that Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval that comes with NEA support. It’s the “if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us” theory. Because they’re not interested in hearing about your grand artistic visions or trying to gauge whether they’re worth the time and money; that’s a waste of their time and money. But support from the NEA? Boom, easy, here’s your matching grant money.

Even working as bare-bones as possible–and we have and do–we couldn’t produce solely on NEA money. With our theatre company, we’ve tried to maintain Equity contracts and salaries for our actors. They’re the largest line item in our budgets. As the occasional playwright, I waived a salary on more than one show just to make sure the actors got paid. The benefit of the lower cost of living around here is that I could usually afford to do that. It would be nice to be able to pay everyone who works with us a living wage.

Part of why we haven’t produced as much in recent years is that we’ve been focused on work that pays us as well. For my part, I’ve slid into podcasting with sponsors, paychecks, and a larger audience. Great for me, but where does that leave the local population? Well, it’s allowing me to build up support from the outside to create a locally produced music and comedy series not unlike a certain Minnesotan writer did a few decades back. So we’re still able to serve the local audience as well. But that’s not the same as fully-produced professional live theatre.

Is the NEA perfect? God, no. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad it’s there, and I love the people I’ve known who work there, but it is by no means perfect. And, compared to the rest of the U.S. budget, it is to that as a single pack of chewing gum would be to a typical household’s budget. So they’re seriously underfunded, too. (Note: the pack of gum post is from six years ago, but the proportions are still roughly the same.) So when someone pulls the “your tax dollars are going towards these ‘arts'” line on you, know that it is a comparatively miniscule amount of your tax dollars at most. My tax dollars go toward all kinds of things I may not like or support–that’s part of the social contract we have in a free democratic republic.

When we’ve given free performances, the room has been packed to capacity. Without NEA funding and additional support, we couldn’t have done that. A lot of those audiences only come to the free shows because even our ticket prices are too much for some around here. Not much more than a movie ticket–and movie tickets around here are still in single digits–but there it is.

Sidebar: progressives, do you want to reach the people in the heartland? Want to connect with the working class? Come out here and make free-to-the-public, live professional theatre. Find the money to make that happen, you’ll be surprised who’ll show up and who might listen. If you’re worried about what kind of shows to put on, don’t. We’ve never chosen work because we thought it would play well in a small town, and we’ve been pleasantly surprised that it has. Just saying.

This isn’t a “wealth transfer,” which is the default position of the so-called small government types. For one thing, it’s actually used to pay for goods and services. It goes towards quality of life–Michael Dove explains the idea of “social profit,” which fits perfectly here–especially in regions underserved by the arts or big business. A “wealth transfer” implies money shifting from one account to another and doing nothing more. Kleptocracies specialize in that. If these people were truly concerned with small government, they might look at something bigger than that proverbial pack of gum. ($400,000 a day for protecting the First Lady in New York City. That’s going to add up for no good reason. Or, say, a wall…)

Here’s a crazy idea: maybe urge the NEA to stop sending the bulk of its support to places like New York and other major cities where sponsors can–and should–be able to step up and support such things. Maybe they should focus on the underserved, underfunded parts of our country that could use access to the arts, professional live theatre, etc without having to drive 1-2 hours (or more) each way. The nearest major regional theatre to me is Actor’s Theatre of Louisville. That’s an hour. With gas prices being what they are, even I don’t get down there as often as I’d like. Between gas and ticket prices, I doubt a lot of the local population is making it down either. Happily, they’ve made a great start with the Our Town community building and creative placemaking initiatives. But it’s just a start.

Assuming we could shift more of that support, then we could encourage sponsors in these regions to step up and to do so on a more consistent basis, allowing companies and artists to build and grow without worrying about the day to day, week to week so much. Because that worry does take away from your time and energy toward making the art.

Maybe if his theory is so surefire, Mr. Marcus should get out of Brooklyn and test it somewhere out here in the heartland. Doesn’t even have to be a county as small as this. Let’s spot him 75,000 and go for an even 100,000 people. But I’d bet it’ll still be tough to start from scratch in between the two or three part time jobs he and his staff members each might need just to survive day to day out here…

UPDATE: Check out an even more detailed rebuttal from Trey Graham here.

  • February 12, 2017