The National Endowment for the Arts fuels rural economies. Trump wants to eliminate it.

“We’ve done exactly what an investor would want to see: taken the [NEA] money and leveraged it into private investment.”

CREDIT: Flickr/Knight Foundation
CREDIT: Flickr/Knight Foundation

Blayze Buseth was always an artsy kid while growing up in the small, rural town of Fergus Falls, Minnesota. But he never imagined that he could turn his love of ceramics into a profession.

“I really didn’t even consider creating artwork as being able to be a full-time job when I was younger,” he said.

So he might never gotten his current business—creating custom ceramic funeral urns—off the ground if it weren’t for a local program called Springboard for the Arts. It was there that he attended their Work of Art business skills classes for artists and started developing a business plan. Later on, he created a logo and website with their help.

“I really didn’t know that there was a professional side to creating artwork. I thought if I made it and put it online I could sell it,” he said. “They really helped me, they grounded me.” Springboard was even able to help him secure a Kiva loan to create a studio space in town.

Buseth represents an important success story for a place like Fergus Falls, which boasts a population of just 13,000 people. He’s not only stayed in the community after graduating high school, but he’s now created a business that helps his local economy. “Fergus is my home for now and I want to give Fergus something unique,” he said.

His success story traces its roots partially back to the federal National Endowment for the Arts, or NEA. Springboard for the Arts wouldn’t be established in Fergus Falls without a grant from the agency.

It wasn’t even a huge amount of money — only $25,000. But that small seed made a huge difference. The NEA grant allowed Springboard to set up a permanent office and get its efforts underway, as well as to leverage $1.2 million more in private money. “That wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” said Laura Zabel, the group’s executive director. “Being able to say the NEA had invested in this idea is really meaningful, both in terms of the actual financial support but really the visibility and validation that comes with that.”

Not only does Springboard now offer concrete business skills for artists in the area, but it’s also pitched in with the town’s revitalization in the wake of the loss of its largest employer. In 2006, the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center, a mental health hospital originally called the Fergus Falls State Hospital for the Insane, closed its doors for good after a century in which it was the main source of jobs in town. Springboard has now opened up artist residencies in the old building.

Its presence in the town goes even further. “The investment from the NEA has rippled out into a staff of three people… and a whole set of programs that support local creative entrepreneurs,” Zabel said. Those three staff members were all young people who had left rural Minnesota and then returned — two of whom were from Fergus Falls itself. “Programs we’ve been able to create help start businesses in Fergus Falls, especially for artists who want to stay in the area, [as well as help] the creative assets of the community to be more visible and be more part of how the community thinks about itself.”

Now Fergus Falls can boast that it attracts artists to the area, as well as other people drawn to the quality of life an artsy town can create. “Artists can play a huge role in making communities more attractive to live,” said Michele Anderson, rural program director for Springboard and one of the three staff members who moved to Fergus Falls for the job. “People that maybe thought of their art more as a hobby [are] realizing, ‘Oh, this is something that can make my community a more livable place, it can help inform our future.’”

The sense of pride in the town has been contagious, Anderson says. In recent years clothing shops, a wood-fired pizza restaurant, and even a brewery have opened up downtown.

“As a return on investment, that small amount of public dollars has really meant a lot of leverage and visibility and a lot of investment into that community.”

“We’ve done exactly what an investor would want to see: taken the [NEA] money and leveraged it into private investment,” Zabel said. “As a return on investment, that small amount of public dollars has really meant a lot of leverage and visibility and a lot of investment into that community.”

A common misconception about the NEA is that it funds elite art in wealthier coastal cities and towns. That’s the kind of reasoning offered up by the Trump administration, which has released two budget documents that would completely shut the NEA down starting in 2018.

Explaining cuts to arts programs, Mick Mulvaney, the budget director, said, “I put myself in the shoes of that steelworker in Ohio… the coal-mining family in West Virginia. The mother of two in Detroit. And I’m saying, ‘Okay, I have to go ask these folks for money and I have to tell them where I’m going to spend it.’ Can I really go to those folks, look them in the eye, and say, ‘Look, I want to take money from you and I want to give it to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’?”

The implication is that arts organizations like the NEA take money from people in struggling communities and give it to richer ones. But the reality often looks much more like what’s happened in Fergus Falls.

About 40 percent of NEA projects are in high-poverty neighborhoods, while 14 percent of NEA grants are for projects that at least partially impact rural areas. Another quarter of state agency grants are awarded to rural places, many of which disperse NEA money.

That funding helps bring huge economic benefits to those communities. The arts and culture sector nationally contributes $729.6 billion to the country’s economy, composing 4.2 percent of GDP. That share that has grown by about 35 percent since 1998. The sector employs 4.8 million people.

Even more music to President Trump’s ears should be the fact that the sector runs a trade surplus with other countries that has grown every year since 2006. As of 2014, it stood at about $26 billion.

For individual communities, the money brought in by the arts can have an outsized impact. Someone who attends an arts event spends an average of $24.60 on top of any ticket prices. A third of attendees are from out of town, and those out-of-towners spend even more — nearly $40, on average.

“When we invest in the arts, we’re investing in a product that draws people to the community,” said Randy Cohen, vice president of research and policy at Americans for the Arts. “Those people spend money. That has a local economic impact.” It’s especially true, he said, for smaller, rural areas that may otherwise struggle to attract people and tourism.

It certainly has been for Lanesboro, Minnesota, a town of about 750 people. The $50,000 NEA grant that Lanesboro Arts received allowed the organization to finish raising the money it needed to renovate a historic theater into an arts residency and performance space, hiring local contractors, electricians, plumbers, and other construction workers in the process. The community was also able to leverage the money to hire consultants who put in place guidelines for its historic downtown, which businesses then used to redo their storefronts, investing even more money in the area. More than $2.5 million has now been invested in downtown Lanesboro.

“It adds water to the seeds to make a stronger community.”

“The results of getting an NEA grant had a lot of ripple effects, not just for our organization but for the community,” said John Davis, executive director of Lanesboro Arts. “Getting one small grant really allowed us to have this upward momentum of success.”

Those projects in turn have put Lanesboro on the map. “The funding from the NEA… really helped solidify Lanesboro as a strong arts community,” he said. The same year it got the funding it was named one of the top 10 small-town art places in the country, while the next year it received the 2014 Bush Prize for Community Innovation. That’s vital for the town to continue to flourish; it’s specifically trying to convince artists and their families to move to Lanesboro.

“How do you sustain small towns, how do you attract new business, how do you attract families to move?” Davis asked. “These are all byproducts of NEA funding… It adds water to the seeds to make a stronger community.”

Before the NEA was created in 1965, this wasn’t much of an option for small towns. There were fewer than 10,000 nonprofit arts and culture organizations across the country, according to Cohen, which meant many communities simply didn’t have any. Now there are about 100,000. “You can have a museum experience or a theater experience or a symphony experience outside of the big cities,” Cohen said. “The fact is that 50 years ago there weren’t a lot of those opportunities.”

“The NEA is a great American success story,” he said. “You can find NEA dollars in every single congressional district.”

“The NEA is a great American success story.”

And while Mulvaney’s comments imply that arts consumption is an elitist activity, Cohen’s organization has conducted public polling that finds the opposite is true. Nearly 90 percent of those polled said the arts are important to their quality of life, while 82 percent said they’re important to local businesses and the economy. More than two-thirds attended an event in the past year. “They cut across all socioeconomic strata and geographic strata,” Cohen said of the results. “It wasn’t just an urban phenomenon and it wasn’t just an affluent phenomenon.”

“To say that a certain class of people don’t personally enjoy having a museum in their community or having a theater in their community is presumptive and preposterous and condescending,” he added.

But if the money were to disappear, the pain wouldn’t be spread evenly. “Certainly the arts would continue to exist,” Cohen said. But “rural and underserved communities would feel that cut most acutely.”

Larger, urban areas are more likely to have foundations and other private sources of money to fund the arts, but that kind of money is scarce in smaller places. “You don’t see as much of that private sector philanthropy in those rural and smaller or low-income communities,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of places to turn to.”

“I think we’d see a lot of those arts organizations close,” he added. “It would turn the clock back 50 years pretty quickly.”