The building housing both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The NEA Is Vital, Democratizing: Teresa Eyring Corrects the Record

A recent NPR interview with theatremaker David Marcus aired several errors and misconceptions.

Scott Simon, Host
National Public Radio
1111 North Capitol Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002

February 22, 2017

Dear Mr. Breslow and Mr. Simon,

I’m writing on behalf of Theatre Communications Group, the national organization for the professional not-for-profit American theatre, in response to your Weekend Edition Saturday interview with David Marcus on February 11, 2017. You’ve opened the door to a meaningful conversation about the value of public funding for the arts, and I hope you’ll be willing to consider some additional information and the opportunity to take the conversation even deeper. We were also concerned about some misleading statements that were made in the course of the interview and wanted to take the opportunity to address those here.

Audiences: In his interview, Mr. Marcus states that NEA funding is a disincentive to building new audiences. The evidence shows that the opposite is true. Thanks to an NEA grant, for instance, Idaho Shakespeare Festival was able to grow its access program and open the door for over 30,000 people ages 5 to 100 to enjoy the professional theatre arts, many of whom would not have been able to attend otherwise. The program includes a tour with over 100 performances for elementary students across the state of Idaho and improves access for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, elderly on fixed income, at-risk youth, refugees, veterans, and their families. There are many examples of this kind of audience and community development.

Federal vs. Local: In response to your question about the programs that the NEA has funded, including art therapy and arts education, Mr. Marcus says that he would like to “see that stuff done more on the state and local level than on the federal level.” Mr. Marcus may not be aware that 40% of the NEA’s funds are disbursed at the state level, through state arts councils, in local grants made with local decision-making. NEA grants are awarded in every Congressional District in the country, developing community through artistry in locales that are otherwise significantly underserved. This is not a case of a federal “government picking winners and losers,” as Mr. Marcus suggests; rather, it’s a great example of a federal/state partnership that responds to local communities’ needs and interests. TCG would be happy to connect you with theatre leaders from these communities who can share their stories about the local impact of NEA grants at theatres such as Cleveland Play House, Penumbra Theatre, Contemporary American Theater Festival, Portland Stage, Southern Rep, and more.

Public Access: At the end of the interview, Mr. Marcus concedes that he’s “not actually convinced that opera and ballet would go away if you took this funding away… [but] they might look different.” Indeed, arts audiences would look different—only the wealthy and privileged few who can afford to participate would have access. Mr. Marcus believes that public funding for the arts represents a “wealth transfer from poorer people to wealthier people.” This is simply not true. NEA grants have made it possible for a much larger and diverse American audience to participate in the arts. In 2015, NEA grants and the programs they support:

  • Enabled more than 33 million people to attend live arts events (exclusive of television and radio broadcast audiences). These included approximately 30,000 concerts, readings, and performances, and more than 5,000 exhibitions.
  • Reached an additional 360 million people through television, radio, and cable broadcasts.
  • Impacted almost 16,000 communities engaged in NEA-supported projects, many benefiting from touring and outreach initiatives.
  • Generated more than $600 million in matching support from private sources.

Further, NEA grants often specifically help low-income audiences and communities:

  • 40% of NEA-supported activities take place in high-poverty neighborhoods.
  • 36% of NEA grants go to organizations that reach underserved populations such as people with disabilities, people in institutions, and veterans.
  • 33% of NEA grants serve low-income audiences.

Free-Market Competition: Mr. Marcus says that NEA funding “stands in the way of free market competition,” yet he may not have fully considered the ways in which theatre’s commercial sector depends upon the not-for-profit sector. So many recent and upcoming Broadway productions—Hamilton, Fun Home, Dear Evan Hansen, The Great Comet, Eclipsed, All the Way, and Sweat, to name a few—were developed and originally produced in not-for-profit theatres. Support from funding organizations like the NEA empowers not-for-profit theatres to experiment in ways that simply aren’t possible within the commercial sector. Theatres can try out aesthetically daring work, reach audiences that couldn’t afford commercial ticket prices, and engage in projects that have community impact, not tickets sales, as their bottom line. In short, Marcus’ laudable vision of a larger and more diverse audience is best achieved by harnessing the strengths of both for-profit and not-for-profit theatres, a collaboration common to sectors such as medicine and technology.

It might be helpful to go back to the words of Arena Stage’s founder Zelda Fichandler in a letter to the Department of the Treasury read into the Congressional Record on behalf of the tax-exempt status for American theatre:

“Once we made the choice to produce our plays not to recoup an investment but to recoup some corner of the universe for our understanding and enlargement, we entered the same world as the university, the museum, the church and became, like them, an instrument of civilization.”

Beyond the very real economic impact of NEA funding—every dollar in NEA funding leverages $9 in private matching funds—there is the symbolic impact of including Zelda’s vision in our country’s bottom line. When we advocate for the NEA, we advocate for a country that believes recouping “some corner of the universe for our understanding and enlargement” is essential to our democratic ideals. It means we believe that the town-hall is just as valuable as the marketplace, and that civilization means something more than commerce.

I look forward to following up with you soon and thank you, again, for this opportunity to share the national impact of NEA funding.

Sincerely,

 

Teresa Eyring
Executive Director, Theatre Communications Group

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