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South Carolina gets $1 million in NEA funding, but future of agency uncertain

June 25, 2017 GMT

It has been a few active weeks for the arts in South Carolina. Myrtle Beach held its third Carolina Country Music Fest, drawing thousands to the four-day event showcasing top-tier talent. Spoleto Festival USA and Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston each offered a wide array of exciting programs over 17 days, including well-received opera productions, classical and jazz concerts, comedy, theater and more.

These are the high-profile events of national, even international, interest that put the state in the spring spotlight and cause millions of dollars to change hands. Other small and medium-sized presentations also have enriched residents and visitors across the state, including the robust, multi-faceted Indie Grits Festival, held April 20-23 in Columbia.

Then on June 14, more action on the arts front: The National Endowment for the Arts named recipients of its latest round of fiscal-year 2017 grant funding, and six South Carolina organizations nabbed a little more than $1 million from the $82 million pot of money (a total of 1,195 grants were awarded nationwide).

The big winner is the S.C. Arts Commission, which funds an array of arts projects throughout the state, often focusing on rural and underserved communities. It secured $791,900 from the NEA. Another Midlands organization benefiting from federal largesse is the Columbia Film Society, which operates the Nickelodeon Theatre, producer of the Indie Grits Festival. The Film Society landed $100,000.

Four more entities, all in Charleston, are on the NEA list of recipients: the Charleston Parks Conservancy, which is receiving $50,000 for a project that would add public art to the West Ashley Greenway and Bikeway; the City of Charleston’s Office of Cultural Affairs, which is getting $20,000 in support of its regional arts marketing campaign; the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, which secured $15,000 to help produce materials for its upcoming exhibition featuring works by Cuban artist Robert Diago; and the nonprofit Engaging Creative Minds, an arts education advocate that won $36,000 to support its Tri-County Continuous Improvement and Evaluation System.

The NEA also has awarded $10,500 to the Office of Cultural Affairs, Charleston County Public Library and the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for the NEA Big Read initiative. Locally, poet Claudia Rankine’s book “Citizen: An American Lyric” will be widely distributed to local readers who will be invited to attend gatherings and a series of special events, according to Scott Watson, director of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs.

The current NEA Big Read program will coincide with the MOJA Arts Festival and the inaugural Free Verse Festival organized by the city’s poet laureate Marcus Amaker.

During the previous round of fiscal-year 2017 NEA funding, Spoleto Festival USA secured $25,000, which helped pay for five productions.

“It’s a good news month for us,” Watson said.

Then came some sobering news for South Carolina’s arts organizations. Gov. Henry McMaster announced he would veto a new allocation of $350,000 earmarked for the S.C. Arts Commission, money meant for grants to state nonprofits.

McMaster listed his veto of the special allocation under the heading “Earmarks and Pork,” explaining that “this new line in the budget gives private artists a permanent toehold in the state budget. A better use of these funds would be classroom education for children.”

Year after year, state legislators override a variety of the governor’s vetoes, and the arts typically fare well in this process, partly a result of constituent pressure.

Requests for comment from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian White (R-Anderson) and House Arts Caucus Co-chairman Leon Stavrinakis were not answered last week.

More news has emerged from Washington, D.C. The NEA grants just announced could be the agency’s last.

“The President’s FY 2018 budget proposes the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, with a request for $29 million intended to be used for the orderly shutdown of the agency,” the NEA stated on its website. “The budget request is a first step in a very long budget process. We continue to accept grant applications for FY 2018 at our usual deadlines and will continue to operate as usual until a new budget is enacted by Congress.”

Meanwhile, the National Endowment for the Humanities also is slated to end operations shortly.

“The White House has requested that Congress appropriate approximately $42 million to NEH for the orderly closure of the agency,” deputy chairwoman Margaret Plympton said in a statement. “This amount includes funds to meet matching grant offers in effect as of October 1, 2017, as well as funds to cover administrative expenses and salaries associated with the closure.”

The mixed signals raise questions about the role of the arts in society and whether public money should be used as a funding source. Politicians looking for ways to cut spending often snip away at the arts and public services.

During a busy week in Washington, D.C., when members of Congress were focused on the GOP’s revised health care bill, South Carolina’s representatives and senators could not be reached for comment about the NEA. Sen. Lindsey Graham, responding to the White House’s proposed budget in March, was critical.

“Historically, presidential budgets do not fare well with Congress,” Graham said. “I appreciate that this budget increases defense spending, yet these increases in defense come at the expense of national security, soft power, and other priorities.”

In 2014, when NEA funding was in doubt, 29 U.S. senators and 133 representatives signed letters to committee and subcommittee officials in charge of appropriations, urging them to support the arts agency. None from the South Carolina delegation were signers.

Similar letters were sent to House and Senate appropriators in March 2016. No Congressmen from South Carolina signed them.

An Americans for the Arts congressional report card published in February notes that Jeff Duncan, Trey Gowdy, Mick Mulvaney (now director of the Office of Management and Budget) and Joe Wilson voted in 2011 to cut NEA funding by $20.5 million.

Arts advocates point to the positive economic impact and social benefits injecting the arts into communities far and wide, large and small. And they are fighting back against the proposed cuts.

Mark Sloan, director of the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art, said the Halsey has benefitted from 10 NEA grants since his arrival in 1994. The grant amounts have ranged from $10,000 to $40,000 and have helped to fund the production of exhibition catalogues, project planning and research and more.

“It is a little bit like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” he said. “If you get that, it makes it much easier to get other money because they know you’ve been vetted by the best of the best.”

Ken May, director of the S.C. Arts Commission, said his agency, guided by the principle of access for all citizens, has been pushing hard to implement arts initiatives in rural areas of the state. An education task force recently examined 30 years of the agency’s operations and recommended that the arts commission do more for low-income children.

May and his colleagues have taken the advice to heart, implementing several new programs. The Read to Succeed summer camp now has an arts component, he said. “We’re using reading to do things fun and engaging.” The arts commission also has partnered with the South Carolina Promise Zone in an initiative called “The Art of Community: Rural S.C.,” which launched last year thanks in part to federal funding from the Department of Agriculture.

The objective of “The Art of Community” is to examine how the arts can be used to address local issues such as economic development, healthcare, education, public safety and affordable housing. Six counties — Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper — currently are involved, comprising the service area of Susan DuPlessis, Arts Commission program director and arts coordinator.

“Through this initiative, we have created a new framework for building local connections, community engagement and capacity,” DuPlessis said is a statement. Strategic planning sessions made it clear how much rural communities value the arts, she said. “I heard how arts and culture were important, whether we were talking about healthcare or workforce development. The arts were clearly identified as key to community pride, attachment and new possibilities.”

May has enthusiastically embraced the project.

“The pilot is a new way to approach counties where we haven’t gotten traction otherwise,” he said. “It’s paying off, and these counties deserve it. They pay taxes too.”

Another project, this time in Denmark, is transforming the site of a former nightclub from a pile of rubble into an art space.

The $350,000 allocation is a result of a special request made by the commission to the House Ways and Means Committee. May said his team had asked for $750,000 to help fund community-based initiatives, but that he was pleased to receive a portion of that requested amount.

“We can do something with that,” he said. “Our general fund appropriation for next year is $3,358,041 (that includes the new $350,000). The new money will all go out in grants to over 150 arts organizations in all parts of the state, primarily in operating support, which is very flexible and isn’t given by most other funders. The new money will increase most of these awards by about 20 percent, so the impact on these organizations will be significant. Definitely worth fighting for.”