In 2011, Memphis’ South Main Artspace Lofts project received a $100,000 planning grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The affordable housing development has since leveraged 18 million dollars in private and public money for artist live-work space on South Main.
The NEA’s support for other Memphis projects and organizations, such as the Tennessee Arts Commission, could be in jeopardy under the Trump administration.
“The arts are part of our DNA as a city,” said ArtsMemphis president and CEO, Elizabeth Rouse.
The NEA, which is the largest funder of nonprofit arts in the country, and other public art organizations like The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, support the arts through projects like ArtSpace across the country.
The White House budget office drafted a list that recommended President Trump’s first budget eliminate NEA, the NEH and the CPB. With these organizations on the chopping block, the Memphis art community rallied at Memphis Made Brewing February 20 to petition elected officials to protect the arts.
Arts supporters turn out for a Feb. 20 "Arts Matter" event hosted by ArtsMemphis.
“(The arts) are an economic driver, they improve our quality of life and, most importantly, they transform lives. When you think about all of the arts organizations doing work in Memphis— whether it’s through arts education, after school programs or work in neighborhoods— the arts are represented all across the city and involve all types of people,” Rouse said.
Arts organizations make up a relatively small part of federal expenditures. Last year, the NEA’s budget was $148 million which is only 0.004 percent of the federal budget.
Jeff Kollath, executive director of the Stax Museum for American Soul Music believes that what is lost in this conversation is that the arts generate more revenue in the economy than they cost the government.
“(The arts) are a huge economic driver and that one of the best things about Memphis,” Kollath said.
“ArtsMemphis and other partner organizations have collected all of this data that shows how much spending is generated from the arts. The statistic is that a person spends over $24 when they go an arts event beyond the cost of their ticket,” Kollah added. “I think what elected representatives fail to see is how that money goes and affects people directly in their districts.”
As evidenced from the Artspace project, Rouse said that federal grants are vital for leveraging additional arts funding.
“(Public arts funding) is a small part of the budget, but it also goes a long way. One of the most important reasons for federal funding is to leverage other dollars from private support and pools of public money.”
At the Feb. 20 event attendees wrote postcards to state elected officials and sent messages on social media advocating for arts funding just days after groups in Nashville and Chattanooga held similar events.
Lauren Moscato, an arts supporter who works at the box office of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, wrote postcards at the event to show her support for federal arts funding. Hers is one of 48,851 arts-related jobs in Tennessee.
Moscato said the most important aspect of the arts in Memphis is the unity and community it provides.
“We need to continue the arts and carry on the message that arts are an important part of any community,” Moscato said.
“I’ve seen personally the growth in the arts in Memphis and the way that it unites people. I think music is universal and that’s why its continued to grow. It’s important for the next generation to appreciate it as well.”
Although cutting the arts has been described as an issue of fiscal responsibility, Kollath said he believes that is not the driving factor.
“The arts have always been political in nature,” said Kollath.
“But another reason why we get into the arts is because of the idea that there are no wrong answers. It’s exciting to push boundaries and to question things and question authority. Frankly, I think that makes people nervous sometimes.”
Rouse says they expect a first draft of the president’s budget next week and they hope that their work to lobby elected officials will build a foundation of support.