Wearing a bright purple tie, Ed Harvey is on the march, armed with a folder full of talking points and purple fans that read “I’m a Fan of the Arts.”
A retired television executive from Washington, Harvey lives in Orange County, where he leads the town’s arts center and serves as president of the advocacy group Virginians for the Arts.
Harvey’s wrapped up an early morning, legislative meet-and-greet at the Carpenter Theatre. Now he’s walking down Grace Street toward the General Assembly building, accompanied by a former state delegate from Culpeper, Butch Davies.
They’re ready to ask for money.
More specifically, they want to keep state arts funding at least at its current level, which at 43 cents per capita ranks Virginia 40th nationwide.
That means the commonwealth spends less on the arts than such states as Kentucky and West Virginia — the latter best known in the public imagination for the twang of banjos.
“We’re not stupid enough to think funding will go up this year,” Harvey says, noting statewide budget concerns. “But it’s been a significant downhill slide, about 40 percent since 2008, and we’re going to try to stop it.”
Gov. Terry McAuliffe lost any funding momentum gained by his Democratic predecessor, Tim Kaine. McAuliffe started his tenure with a 25-percent cut, and levels have yet to recover from that new budget baseline.
Harvey’s purple folder is filled with statistics about the state’s arts organizations, how in the 2015 fiscal year they served more than 1.4 million young people and employed more than 68,500 people.
That’s in addition to helping fuel the $23 billion tourism industry, he says. In Virginia, cultural tourism provides a third more in dollars than regular tourism.
Why so much purple?
“As someone noted, it’s a mix of red and blue,” Harvey jokes as he enters the building, running a gauntlet of diverse groups jostling or waiting in various states of boredom for political attention.
Arts advocates are now prohibited from providing tickets to performances and offering event invitations, but the cheap fans seem to work. Legislative aides, at least, express appreciation for them as a way to cool off during the feeding frenzy.
“Do you have an appointment?” asks the secretary for Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier.
No, it’s a drop-by, they say. And no, they aren’t pushing a bill — they’re asking for money.
“Oh. Get out,” the secretary deadpans, before leading the advocates into an office to chat with a legislative aide. The senator is out, dealing with family commitments.
“Sometimes the aides are really the people to talk to,” Harvey notes afterward. “They can say, ‘Vote yes or no on this.’”
The General Assembly session has been underway a few weeks during this late-January stop, and the only current arts-related proposal comes from a House of Delegates bill to allow arts and culture districts to be created jointly by multiple localities, perhaps affecting tourism for more rural areas.
As Harvey sees it, this is a year to keep the state funding pressure on. Virginians for the Arts is gearing up to push to raise state funding next year, which marks the 50th anniversary of the Virginia Commission for the Arts.
It is a crucial organization that provides operating fund support — such unsexy stuff as utilities, rent and salaries — for arts organizations large and small across Virginia. The bulk of its funding, 74 percent, goes to counties whose income falls below the state median — basically underserved areas, both urban and rural.
The commission receives 20 percent of its annual $3.5 million budget, or $700,000, from the National Endowment for the Arts. That’s raising concerns, with national media reporting that the endowment is on President Donald Trump’s list of areas to defund to reduce federal spending by $10.5 trillion during the next decade.
Such a scenario has been causing increased worry among local arts groups, adding to an already widespread concern from self-employed artists anxious about changes to the Affordable Care Act.
Among the 17 programs likely to get the ax from the Trump administration are some traditional targets of Republican ire, including the national endowments for the arts and for the humanities, as well as privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as recently reported in the Hill.
The rumored federal discretionary spending cuts come mostly from a blueprint published by the conservative Heritage Foundation last year. As noted by Time magazine, the average taxpayer would save $22.36 from the cuts, mostly from a clean energy program.
By contrast, housing subsidies, such as the mortgage-interest deduction, cost $296.29 per American. Drilling down, the cost for the NEA, NEH and public broadcasting accounts for about .02 percent of the $3.9 trillion spent by the government in 2016.
Any defunding of the NEA likely would take several years, Harvey notes, and it may or may not happen.
“I’m sure every arts organization and group in the United States will rally if it does happen,” he says. “You bet we’re concerned about it. We’re just not talking about it yet.”
For numerous Richmond arts groups, the NEA is a vital funding source. Recipients range from smaller nonprofits such as 1708 Gallery, Art 180 and the Storefront for Community Design, to larger organizations such as Richmond Ballet and Venture Richmond. They’ve all secured grants ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 in recent years.
Emily Smith, director of 1708 Gallery, is an unofficial spokeswoman for arts funding in Richmond, considering her additional status as a board member of Virginians for the Arts. She notes that endowment funding in recent years has been crucial to 1708 Gallery’s staging of popular public events such as InLight Richmond.
But it’s more than money, she says, citing hands-on assistance, feedback and help with grants and projects.
“That’s invaluable and not often talked about,” Smith says. “If the NEA goes away and isn’t funding statewide arts organizations, it’s going to be a steeper, uphill battle at the local level.”
The newly named executive director of Venture Richmond, Lisa Sims, says that the downtown booster’s premiere event, the Richmond Folk Fest, received a $15,000 grant from the endowment last year — and in other years as much as $35,000. But most of Venture’s budget comes from corporate sponsorships and donations, she says.
“I think really it’s a stamp of approval or credibility,” Sims says of the grants. “We certainly don’t know what the ripple effects might be yet [of losing them]. But it could hurt a lot of organizations.”
If Trump pushes through the defunding, it could be worse than the cuts suffered by the NEA in the 1980s, when conservatives lashed out at a wave of political art they deemed unworthy. Former President Ronald Reagan wanted to eliminate the NEA but missed his chance.
Trump’s potential defunding likely would have greater ramifications for smaller, marginalized art groups without deep donor pockets, but “we will all feel it,” Smith says.
Scott’s Addition printmaker Studio Two Three receives general operating support from the Virginia Commission for the Arts annually, co-founder and director Ashley Hawkins says: “It’s fantastic because so many other grants are tied to projects or programs.”
Hawkins is concerned by possible federal cuts, she says, but notes that her group is fortunate to have a strong mix of approximately 50 percent earned income as well as contributing funds and grant funding. What worries her more immediately are how the Affordable Care Act changes could affect local artists.
Richmond’s innovative Art 180 received its first direct NEA grant in 2015, and a considerably larger one last year.
“We haven’t yet received the funds for either, and I’m hoping they won’t have to renege since we based our budget on that,” director Marlene Paul says, adding that her group receives pass-through NEA funds from the Virginia Commission for the Arts.
While Art 180 is not heavily dependent on government funds, Paul says, she’s more concerned about the message that the government sees no value in funding the arts.
“For organizations like us that use art as a tool for youth development, it’s doubly discouraging,” she says. “And it’s ridiculous, given what a tiny fraction of the national budget it is. It’s about making a statement, and it’s an embarrassing statement.”
At the Virginia Commission for the Arts, NEA grant amounts have been rising after two successive years of funding cuts from the state.
Margaret G. Vanderhye, the commission’s executive director, says she plans to be prepared for federal defunding of the NEA, but holds out hope that saner heads will prevail. Among the reasons is that defunding would most affect the people the Trump administration says it wants to support — those who didn’t benefit from the economic recovery.
“It’s not a given that if Republicans are in office, you’re going to get cuts,” she says. “But I think it would be counterintuitive and counterproductive to defund the arts because they keep the lights on, on Main Street.”
Another reason is that she’s also heard rumors that the new administration will be keen to support a robust art therapy program within the NEA that works with active duty military people and veterans.
“Our governor has made veteran wellness and wholeness a priority,” she says, “so we’re working with him and the NEA to expand these opportunities. One in 10 Virginians is a veteran, so there’s a big need.”
In many cities across the state, the arts provide the only cultural opportunities available for arts education, given the defunding of art classes within schools. Besides general operating support, the Virginia Commission for the Arts provides local government challenge grants, by which $5,000 grants are matched by localities and leveraged on a grass-roots, community level.
“The return on investment is 10-1,” Vanderhye says.
Meanwhile, the NEA is busy working with the Commerce Department to ascertain the economic value of art and culture nationwide.
On its website, organizers write that they were startled to learn that the share of gross domestic product attributable to arts and culture has been consistently more than 4 percent. Fueling that number were rises in Web-based publishing, broadcasting, performing arts presenters and industrial design services.
They also note that the field continues to give the United States a trade surplus, exporting $26 billion more than it imports from other countries.
“In 2014 (the last year captured),” the site reads, “government contributed 13.5 percent of value added by arts and culture industries to the U.S. economy.” The NEA plans to release a more detailed account in early 2018.
States must be prepared to deal with any contingency, Vanderhye says. And she’ll continue to trumpet how vital a role the arts play on a grass-roots level, she says — especially as she begins a funding push on the eve of the Virginia commission’s 50th anniversary.
“We’re looking to get closer to the $1 per capita that the General Assembly set as a goal about 20 years ago,” she says. But whatever gains they would make next year with the state could be offset by the loss of NEA funds.
Is anyone fighting against arts funding in Virginia? After reaching out to several offices, Style received little response.
Few people — legislators or otherwise — are opposed to the arts per se, Vanderhye says, noting that the argument against public funding of arts organizations comes from a small, ideological group at the federal level.
“My push back would be that it’s essential for a free society,” she says. “If you don’t have imagination and creative expression that the arts afford, you’re less likely to have open thinking and free people. And the Founding Fathers thought that was important.”
So why does Virginia continue to rank so low nationwide in arts funding?
“I think a factor that impacts Virginia unduly is the threat of sequestration and the budget impact given the change in military funding,” she says. “But we haven’t been singled out by this administration. We’re all in the same boat.”
The way to go, she says, is with McAuliffe’s initiatives to diversify and create a new Virginia economy that’s not so reliant on federal funding, particularly defense spending.
“It’s a smart strategy because it’s bringing different jobs and different industries to communities where they’re needed the most,” Vanderhye says. She hopes the strategy pays off in economic gains for the state and the arts.
But it would help if the Trump administration didn’t send such a negative signal from the top.
“Why would you do something that is counterproductive to the very people whose lives you’re trying to improve?”
As far as the work of such arts advocates as Harvey, vigilance will be key. He says that he was fortunate to meet face-to-face with five legislators and came away from the General Assembly feeling fairly positive.
But it’s usually better to visit them in their home offices, he says, than when the legislature is meeting — which is where he’ll start for next year’s push.
“Right after session is over,” he says. “You start again.” S