The NEA contributed $1.4 million to Philly’s creative economy in 2017. Now Trump wants to kill it.

Trump’s proposal to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts would “end valuable direct investments in our local communities,” said the leaders of some of the nation’s most urban-focused foundations, including Philadelphia’s William Penn Foundation, in a statement issued by the funding collaborative Artplace America on Monday. The foundations that signed the letter collectively contribute millions of dollars annually to support community arts and placemaking in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, supporting organizations such as the Village of Arts and Humanities, Mural Arts, Bartram’s Garden, Asian Arts Initiative and People’s Emergency Center. Those grant dollars are often leveraged by support from the NEA. 

In a joint response to Trump’s proposal to dismantle the nation’s only federal agency dedicated to the arts, foundation leaders emphasized the crucial role of artists in helping “root us in our communities, help connect us with our neighbors, and help to drive civic participation.”

In 2018, the NEA sent $580,000 in federal grant dollars to Philly, supporting art initiatives within city government and 26 local arts organizations including the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, which used the money for community art workshops and a culminating pop-up art installation, and PEC. The West Philadelphia nonprofit used its grant to underwrite the Lancaster Avenue Jazz Arts Community Festival and other neighborhood programs.

Trump’s proposal to kill the NEA comes amid dwindling support for the agency, a federal decision that has already cost Philadelphia.In 2017, the city got $1.44 million shared among 50 organizations, and in 2016, the total exceeded $1.47 million, divvied up between 60 local groups.  

If you were one of the millions of Philadelphians and tourists who enjoyed last year’s nationally renown Monument Lab exhibition, you too partook in an NEA-funded project. The federal agency kicked in $60,000 towards the ambitious public art installation. A smaller grant of $20,000 went to West Philadelphia-based Tiny WPA, a nonprofit that trains youth and adults of diverse backgrounds in design, fabrication, and entrepreneurship. The funds supported the organization’s multigenerational Building Heroes community design program, an initiative that has produced youth-built picnic tables and colorful seating for public spaces in some of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods.  

“It would be a travesty to lose support for the Building Hero Training Program—for the many ready and willing ‘Heroes in our City as well as our parks, schools, rec centers and public spaces,” said Alex Gilliam, co-founder of Tiny WPA and Founder of Public Workshop.” 

Building Heroes pose on super seats they built for Mifflin Park through a NEA-funded Tiny WPA program.
(Tiny WPA)

For Gilliam and others, the NEA’s impact extends beyond direct funding. The federal agency is “one of the most powerful conveners in the United States, pulling together people, ideas, deep knowledge, and other resources in a manner that few others can do—nationally and locally. They are effectively able to double or triple the impact of their budget in this manner,” Gilliam said. In 2016, for instance, Gilliam joined dozens of other urban designers working in American neighborhoods at a summit about how to use community-engaged design as a tool against urban inequality and other injustices. The NEA hosted the event in partnership with Surdna Foundation, one of the philanthropies that signed Monday’s letter. 

“Together,” the funders wrote in Monday’s statement, “we have worked more effectively than we could have done alone exactly because the public sector and philanthropy are not meant to do the same thing.”

As a federal government agency, the NEA cannot engage in advocacy, either directly or indirectly, the agency’s chairman Jane Chu wrote in a statement Thursday addressing the budget proposal. Chu was able to express, at least, that “we are disappointed because we see our funding actively making a difference with individuals in thousands of communities and in every Congressional District in the nation.”

— William Penn Foundation is a WHYY supporter and has given grants that support PlanPhilly’s journalism. 

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