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Pittsburgh Arts Advocates Make Their Funding Case At The Capitol

Manuel Balce Ceneta
New Orleans musician Trombone Shorty, right, mentors a group of middle school students from the Washington area during an interactive student workshop in the Red Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015.

In its first 2017 budget, the Trump administration proposed phasing out funding for three federal programs: the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the *Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Arts advocates nationally mobilized and, in a rare bipartisan show of support, Congress restored funding for the three agencies, and even increased it slightly.

This year, it’s déjà vu all over again.

The new Trump administration budget likewise proposes zeroing out funding for the NEA, NEH and CPB. Their backers say the groups do outsized good considering that their combined budgets – about $750 million, including $150 million each for the NEA and the NEH – constitute a tiny fraction of federal spending.

And just like last year, one way supporters are making their case is by traveling en masse to Washington, D.C., on the annual Arts Advocacy Day.

Arts Advocacy Day, organized by Americans for the Arts, is actually two days of programming this week, culminating in Tuesday’s series of visits by arts advocates to legislators’ offices. About 700 arts administrators and other allies from around the U.S. were in town for the event. Their number included a delegation of 17 from Western Pennsylvania, including Mitch Swain, executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.

From Washington's Longworth House Office Building on Tuesday, Swain said things looked promising.

“It’s going really, really well,” he said. “The message that we’ve heard loud and clear [from legislators] is that the president can recommend the budget, but Congress sets the budget. We’ve had bipartisan support for the arts for many years now, and we’re working very hard so we can count on that going forward.”

Swain personally attended meetings with staff for Pittsburgh-area Congressional members Mike Doyle (D-Forest Hills) and Keith Rothfus (R-Sewickley) as well as Rep. Glenn Thompson, a Republican whose district spans northwest and north-central Pennsylvania. Other members of the Pennsylvania arts delegation met with U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D) and Pat Toomey (R).

“There’s always bipartisan support -- whether it’s local at the state level or at the federal level -- for the arts,” he said. “We feel like we can count on that. People see the value of the National Endowment for the Arts, they understand the important of having grants that come into our community and spur other kinds of projects. “

Advocates argue that arts spending in general creates jobs and has other benefits.

NEA funding reaches every Congressional district in the country, including rural districts with few other sources of arts funding. Some programs specifically benefit veterans. Groups that receive NEA funding are required to equal it in matching funds, so taxpayer money goes further. Although, the NEA reports that match ratio is closer to $9 of local fundraising raised for every $1 of NEA money.

And arts groups note that because of its rigorous process for reviewing funding requests, the NEA functions as a kind of imprimatur: Groups that receive even a small NEA grant typically find it easier to attract other funders as well.

Groups are also lobbying legislators to restore protections for open access to the internet for all, which were recently stripped by the Federal Communications Commission. 

Arts advocates are also concerned about the new federal tax law, which increases the size of the standard deduction; arts groups fear that this will make tax-filers less likely to itemize deductions, thus discouraging charitable giving. Swain said arts advocates want legislators to create a “universal charitable deduction” that would make it easier for people to reduce their tax burden by itemizing donations.

*90.5 WESA is funded, in part, by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email:
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