Stella McGregor on the Urbano Project and the NEA
Since its conception in 2007, the Urbano Project has offered a community space for participatory art in Jamaica Plain. Urbano’s founder, Stella McGregor, explained that Urbano is her way of working with communities and youth to explore what art is and how it can be used in creative engagement.
Urbano Project’s current featured exhibition is a travelling library of Spanish books curated by the New York artist Pablo Helguera.
“It has been super exciting to bring an artist that we totally respect to Urbano,” McGregor said. “This installation has been travelling since 2013 and in each place it has been the only solely Spanish bookstore in every city it has gone to – it has brought in a lot of different people and exposed a lot of them to contemporary art.”
Because of the niche reach of the Urbano Project, a considerable percentage of their funding comes from the National Endowment for the Arts.
President Donald Trump released a partial plan for his 2018 budget in mid-March, introducing a plan to defund several national programs, one of which is the National Endowment for the Arts. The National Endowment offers funding to local and national arts organizations across the United States and many arts foundations are concerned about the proposal’s effect on local arts.
“It works like a ripple effect,” McGregor said. “I think the defunding of the NEA is going to have serious ramifications in terms of the funding for nonprofits. For larger cultural organizations like the MFA or the ICA, the NEA funding is significant, but it also a very small portion of their full budget.”
Matthew Wilson, executive director for the arts advocacy group MASS Creative said the NEA provides money for small and mid-size arts organizations that don’t get the same private funding as larger institutions.
“Smaller groups can be more experimental if they receive this public funding” Wilson said. Many other arts advocates agree.
On March 28th, MASS Creative along with hundreds of other arts enthusiasts marched for Arts Advocacy Day to show their support for arts funding. According to a video of the event posted by HowlRound, Lee Pelton, President of Emerson College, said “President Lyndon Johnson said that arts is a nation’s most precious heritage. Johnson spoke these words at the signing of the bill that created the national endowment for the arts and the national endowment for the humanities, the very agencies our current administration seeks to defund. This is a critical moment to make our voices heard.”
MASS Creative advocates for art groups in Massachusetts by encouraging political leaders to understand the impact of art and culture on the economy and quality of life. Members of the group work to lobby for government policy and regulations that promote and fund cultural efforts. Wilson said the defunding of the NEA would be a “blow to the community” and that the budget for arts and culture has decreased significantly in the last 20 years.
Wilson remains hopeful when it comes to future funding of the National Endowment for the Arts.
“I have real doubts about whether the president’s proposal is going to go through,” Wilson said. “The impact would be significant on Massachusetts, but it would be much more significant in other states. New Hampshire gets about fifty percent of its’ art funding from the NEA. In Massachusetts, it’s only six or seven percent.”
Some conservative groups support the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. Laurence Jarvik, of the Heritage Foundation, explains in his article “Ten Good Reasons to Eliminate the Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts,” that the NEA will not affect funding overall for arts institutions. He also refers to the NEA as “welfare for the cultural elitists.”
Those involved in many art institutions – large or small – disagree with the stance that the NEA is irrelevant. Kathy Sharpless, the director of Marketing and Communications for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, said that while major institutions in Boston are not fully funded by the NEA, the public funding that museums receive encourages private donors to contribute and helps legitimize their institutions.
“Without sounding trite: how can you not support the culture in our country?” Sharpless said. “The NEA guarantees access to arts and arts preservation for the country. For diverse culture in our country, this funding is essential.”
Sharpless also emphasized the impact that NEA funding has on smaller arts groups in Boston and across the country.
“If the NEA gets defunded, so many of the smaller arts groups lose a huge chunk of their ability to present or to perform for audiences,” Sharpless said. “It absolutely means that the very real pressure put on all art institutions to gain private funding becomes that much more difficult.”
Sharpless said that while no part of the Stewart Gardner’s funding is completely dependent on the NEA, the funding they do receive helps preservation projects and new exhibitions at the museum. Their current exhibition “Listen Hear: The Art of Sound” was partially funded by the NEA and the NEH. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum received a grant from the NEA in 2017 for $35,000.
Myran Parker-Brass is the Executive Director for the Arts with Boston Public Schools. Parker-Brass said she was appalled at the proposed cuts for the National Endowment for the Arts.
“We have been very fortunate to receive NEA funding,” Parker-Brass said. “Those national dollars are many times the driver for local philanthropic funding to reach out as well. When folks see the federal government is invested in what you are doing, it helps drive additional funds.”
Parker-Brass is optimistic that the budget will not pass, but says that while she believes the NEA will not be defunded, the overall funding could take a hit, which would really affect mid-size organizations.
“Will the NEA take a hit? Maybe,” Parker-Brass said. “But if we look at the percentage of funds in the federal budget that go to NEA it is very small – I don’t know what you garner in cutting those entities.”
Indeed, these cuts would affect smaller-scale arts foundations like the non-profit Urbano Project and countless others like it across the nation.
“I’ve always been working in the nonprofit field” Stella McGregor of the Urbano Project said. “And these projects rely heavily on public funding because they are not traded commodities.”