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Lisa Scails: National Endowment for the Arts is vital to our community

May 25, 2017 GMT

There are hundreds of arts, history, and cultural organizations, annual events, festivals and projects that have helped to define the rural and suburban towns in Greater Danbury — influencing lives, educating children, connecting with other service providers, and creating a sense of place for people who live here and for those seeking to relocate and to visit.

In every town, we have cultural legacies: nonprofit and informal organizations that help to preserve unique heritage, passing along precious cultural character and traditions to future generations. Arts organizations are civic catalysts: They have the power to bring people together, to share ideas, to be inspired and to engage the community.

Communities across America have a stake in the arts, including our own. According to Americans for the Arts, 4.8 million Americans work in arts and culture industries. Additionally, the arts generate $22.3 billion in federal, state, and local government revenue.

The major driver of arts initiatives across the country is the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts.

I want to make sure that Senators Blumenthal and Murphy know that in Connecticut, in 2016 alone, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) awarded a total of $1,460,800 in grant money to 30 nonprofit and governmental arts organizations. These grants worked to enhance access to the arts for all, especially in underserved rural and inner-city areas. Of this NEA funding, over $740,000 went to Connecticut Office of the Arts. The state then matched these federal funds and awarded grants to 339 arts organizations in 110 communities across Connecticut.

The NEA’s goals are fulfilled primarily through direct grants, reviewed and recommended by panels of citizen experts, to arts organizations across the country. NEA grants provide a significant return on investment of federal dollars with $1 of NEA direct funding leveraging up to $9 in private and other public funds, resulting in $500 million in matching support in 2016. Why? Because winning an NEA grant sends a clear message that the grantee is operating an impactful local program of top national quality.

In 2016 alone, the NEA recommended more than 2,400 grants in nearly 16,000 communities in every Congressional District in the country. What’s more, 40 percent of NEA-supported activities take place in high-poverty neighborhoods. Thirty-six percent of NEA grants go to organizations that reach underserved populations such as people with disabilities, people in institutions, and veterans. The NEA has been able to do all these things and more on a meager budget of $148 million.

President Trump’s proposed budget for FY 2018 calls for an elimination of the NEA, among other cultural agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Please don’t believe those dusty, old arguments to eliminate these cultural agencies because it would reduce the deficit or the size of government. We simply cannot afford to cut back on our federal investment in the arts and culture in this country.

According to the latest news from U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, the arts and culture contribute 4.23 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. That’s $729 billion per year. It’s one of the very few economic industries that yield a trade surplus of $26 billion and generates 4.8 million American jobs that cannot be outsourced out of the country.

Can we afford to lose the profound impact of the NEA in our state, community, and schools?

Lisa Scails is the executive director of the Danbury-based Cultural Alliance of Western Connecticut.