The front porch of a cabin at Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Kentucky; Photo: Savannah Barrett
Art of the Rural strongly supports the continued funding of the National Endowment for the Arts — for its economic and cultural impact, and for the way it helps rural communities take advantage of local opportunities and collectively vision the future of their places.
To take stock of the contributions of the NEA in this moment when its funding is in jeopardy, we might begin by celebrating the economic impact of the NEA’s investment in our communities and share the success of this work far beyond the arts and culture field. Without question, we can find ample and undeniable evidence of the Endowment’s ability to serve as a lightning rod for matching and amplifying investments on the local and regional level across all fifty states. The data exists and, indeed, it is already influencing community and economic development decisions across the country.
Similarly, it is hard to imagine our cultural landscape without the presence of the NEA, which conducts vital research, builds cross-sector partnerships with other governmental entities, supports individual artists, inspires creative placemaking, and celebrates vernacular culture through its Folk Arts program and its Heritage Fellowships. Yet, dwelling for a moment even on the impact of NEA’s support of folk arts opens up a crucial point of difference that may be left out of many defenses of the NEA: the rural context.
Rural America comprises roughly 75% of US land, and 15% of its people, yet only receives (optimistically) 6% of American philanthropy’s support each year. This inequity frames the inconsequential place rural communities hold in the priorities of so many of our nation’s foundations. In this absence of responsibility, the National Endowment for the Arts has provided the kind of leadership and program design that fairly funds rural projects and includes these voices in national conversations. Defunding the NEA would disadvantage the everyday life of rural Americans.
In its support of artists, culture bearers, and community-based projects, the NEA has provided a clear model for how we must address the confluence of economic and cultural challenges facing our rural regions. As expressed so frequently throughout the course of our NEA-funded Next Generation initiative with the Rural Policy Research Institute, rural places are facing three consistent challenges: maintaining vital economic opportunities, remaining exciting and inclusive places for the next generation of its citizens, and providing an environment that encourages civic and social participation across all parts of the community. The NEA not only understand this, but has been crucial in catalyzing partnerships with other governmental, private sector, and philanthropic entities towards those ends.
The transition after a national election should provide an opportunity to reassess the outcomes of our nation’s investments. We must not lose sight of the results of the economic and cultural investments the NEA has made in rural people and rural communities, and the ways in which these programs have transformed the potential for folks to imagine, and act upon, their future.