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Arts & Performance

The Porch: What Is Our Collective Responsibility To Fund The Arts?

Two elder Black jazz musicians are laughing while reminiscing about their shared past.
Eric Waters (ericwatersphotography.com)
Bill Myers (left) and Sam Lathan are subjects in a project documenting and highlighting the African American music trails of Eastern North Carolina. This project is among several featured in The Porch about public funding of the arts.

Artists color our communities, bring creative thinking to challenges and issues and expand our understanding of the world. But quantifying that impact—showing the value artists contribute—is often difficult beyond economics and hard numbers. Many in the arts struggle to sell their work or simply work in ways that isn’t sellable. Because of that, even before the pandemic, economic instability was an everyday reality for many with careers in the arts. 


In this episode of The Porch, from BPR News, we explore this question: If communities benefit from the work and presence of artists, what is our collective responsibility to publicly pay for the arts? 


Credit Catherine Komp
Disruptive art happened this past year through the lens of Richmond, Va.,’s graffiti-covered Confederate monuments, transforming a towering reminder of our nation’s racist origins into a space for community gathering. This comes up in our opening segment as an example of our expanded understanding of the arts.

The latest study from Americans for the Arts found the nonprofit arts industry supports 4.5 million jobs and generates $27.5 billion in revenue back to local, state and federal governments. That’s more than five times what the nonprofit arts industry receives in government allocations. 


With that in context, here’s a very short quiz: In dollars, take a guess at how much of your personal state income taxes every year go toward the arts


We answer that question in this segment, which features conversations with two leading arts advocates—Nate McGaha of Arts NC and Sheila Smith, recently retired from Minnesota Citizens for the Arts—about current funding in North Carolina and models elsewhere.


“I think there’s a willingness to invest in the arts. Yes, you could certainly say within the scope of the state budget, you could say increase this for 40-50 percent. Legislators are not just working for the arts and have to consider the entire state budget and a state budget can only realistically grow without new sources of revenue.”—Nate McGaha, executive director, Arts NC.


Credit Sarah Jones Decker (sarahjonesdecker.com)
The Toe River Arts Council operates galleries in Burnsville (pictured here) and Spruce Pine and serves artists in Mitchell and Yancey counties.


In the opening segment, the director of Arts NC spoke of an emphasis at the state legislature on rural arts. There are 100 arts councils across the state. All arts councils regrant money from the state to artists and organizations in their communities. They also produce their own events and offer arts education and experience programs through their local schools. 


Three local councils—in Brevard, Waynesville and Burnsville—are anchors of their arts communities, even with reduced staffing because of the pandemic. In this segment, you’ll hear about the broad work happening with these councils and their economic challenges.


“It’s not all based in ‘What we think we can do for you is—’ It’s more of a conversation about ‘how can we help each other?’ That’s really important in rural communities, because resources are limited here. We don’t want it to always be competitive, because that’s an easy thing for nonprofits to do sometimes. It’s important to take a step back and see if what we’re doing is really beneficial for our community and are we really serving a need. Is our mission really aligned with the needs of our community, and in rural communities, that’s more important than ever.”—Nealy Andrews, executive director, Toe River Arts Council.


Credit UNC-Asheville
Students in UNC-Asheville's STEAM studio, in 2018, were critical in realizing the vision for the animetronic "Wake" sculpture by artist Mel Chin.


Does a broader understanding of the arts affect your sense of responsibility to funding the arts? Such a broadened understanding is embodied in the ethos of STEAM education. That places the arts alongside science, technology, engineering and math in school curricula, with the eye on adaptive career skills and prep. 


In this segment, we meet an educator and students from UNC-Asheville's STEAM studio and the founder of an institute devoted to STEAM education to learn how blending the arts into the sciences has opened channels of creative thinking and new careers.


“We’re not going to be able to solve all of these massive problems in the world with technological solutions only. It has to come from cross-disciplinary work and understanding all of the social contexts and economics contexts and cultures that are affected. We face massive problems between the racism in America and catastrophic climate change and socio-economic issues and food scarcity. These students understand that it’s not one discipline that’s going to solve these problems.”—Sara Sanders, founding co-director, STEAM studio at UNC-Asheville.


If you have some thoughts or answers around the present and future of arts funding, we’d like to hear from you. Comment on the post for this episode on Blue Ridge Public Radio’s Facebook page or write me directly at mpeiken@bpr.org.

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Correction: An earlier version of the audio for this program had incorrect information about staffing levels with the Asheville Area Arts Council. Those numbers have been updated. This episode also stated there are 100 arts councils across North Carolina. The correct number is 76, with the remaining counties served by other "community arts partners."