Delaware arts groups concerned about Trump budget plans

 Delaware Symphony Orchestra leaders say proposed cuts in arts funding could end DSO's plans to expand to more downstate Delaware venues. (photo courtesy DSO)

Delaware Symphony Orchestra leaders say proposed cuts in arts funding could end DSO's plans to expand to more downstate Delaware venues. (photo courtesy DSO)

It’s the sort of news that keeps arts administrators up at night.

President Trump recently unveiled a $1.5 trillion budget that would eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts to help finance increases in defense and homeland security spending.

The budget would also slash other domestic programs such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Studies as well as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The impact of such cuts could trickle down to local Delaware arts organizations.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“It’s very worrisome,” said Bud Martin, executive director of the Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington. “I think the whole regional theater movement started largely because the NEA gave the states money to be able to fund organizations like this.”

The NEA, which was established in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson, has a broad mission. Besides providing grants to individual artists and organizations, it promotes arts education and access to the arts for underserved populations and those in rural areas.

The cuts are largely symbolic budget-cutting efforts since the NEA accounts for a statistically insignificant portion of the government’s annual budget—a mere 0.001 percent. But federal arts money accounts for about 17 percent of the state’s arts budget, according to Paul Weagraff, director of the Delaware Division of the Arts which distributes the funds to organization throughout the state. Losing the $693,000 that the NEA gives to the agency would mean cutting back on funding programs, losing staff and losing the ability to promote the state’s offerings that reach one million people each year, he said.

Nor does it appear likely that the state or private philanthropy will have the ability to make up the difference. “The state is having to deal with its own projected deficits and I doubt seriously that private philanthropy could step up to the plate and fill in that gap,” Weagraff said.

For some organizations, the cuts can mean missed opportunities. Last year the Delaware Symphony Orchestra received $143,000 from the DDOA. Losing 17 percent of that amount could nix plans to take the orchestra to more downstate venues, among other things, said Executive Director Alan Jordan. “If I had to cut $23,000 from the budget, it wouldn’t be just fat, it would be flesh,” he said.

The Delaware Theatre Company’s Martin worries that the theater might have to cut one of its seasonal shows or downsize productions as well as cut staff and educational programs. “What worries me is that [larger productions] are what people want in the theater and that could create a downward spiral,” he said.

Marilyn Whittington, executive director of the Delaware Humanities Forum, said the activities of the organization would be severely impacted if it were to lose the $600,000 in funding it receives from the NEH. The organization supports programs that allow university professors to go into lower-grade classrooms, creates programs about Delaware history and brings exhibits from the Smithsonian Institute to small towns. “I think we would be sorely missed,” she said.

Budget cuts could also leave projects-in-progress incomplete. The Delaware Art Museum has digitized 80 percent of its 12,500-object collection thanks to $280,000 in support from the IMLS. Museum officials fear a pending grant could be in jeopardy if proposed cuts go through. “Having the collection online builds awareness of the quality and depth of our collection and encourages people to come here and visit,” said Executive Director Samuel Sweet.

Smaller organizations will find they need to work harder to obtain the funds necessary to maintain operations. “We do rely on grants a lot so it really would hurt us,” said Irene Averitte, operations manager at the Mispillion Art League on the Riverwalk of the Arts in Milford. That organization offers classes to both adults and children, including scholarships to talented youth.

Arts leaders agreed that non-revenue generating activities like education and outreach would be hurt the most if the proposed cuts were to go through.

Cuts to the NEA/NEH would also mean less funding from outside organizations that see individual grants as a “stamp of excellence.”

OperaDelaware received an NEA grant last year to support the east coast premiere of Faccio’s Amletto and another this year to help with the production of this spring’s Rossini festival. “It’s like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” said OD General Director Brendan Cooke. “We got more response out of a $15,000 grant from the NEA than from a half a million dollar grant from a local foundation.”

David Roselle, director of Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, agrees. Funding from the NEH allowed the museum to establish an endowed director of conservation post two years ago. “An endowed position elevates the occupant of that position and makes it easier for us to hire really good people into the organization,” he said.

Weagraff emphasized that the cuts are just proposals and that the budget process is a long and arduous one. Moreover, he pointed out that Congress—not the White House—determines the budget and support for the arts has been historically bipartisan. All three members of Delaware’s congressional delegation signed the letter supporting the NEA.

Still, arts leaders are encouraging their trustees and the public to call their elected officials and voice their support. Guillermina Gonzalez, executive director of the Delaware Arts Alliance, led a contingent of DAA member organizations to Washington, DC on Monday and Tuesday for National Arts Advocacy Day. Delaware Arts Advocacy Day will take place on May 4 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Legislative Hall in Dover.

Gonzalez, who holds a doctorate in business administration, said the arts not only enhance quality of life but play an important role in education and the economy as well. “If Delaware is to remain competitive, the workforce of the future must have math and critical thinking skills,” she said. “If we do not include the arts, we are doing a disservice.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal