Cultural conversation draws a crowd to BRT

Cultural conversation draws a crowd to BRT

Students and teachers from Cumberland High School, above, listen to the discussion on proposed cuts to funding for the National Endowment for the Arts by the Trump administration. Below, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline stands to make his points on the possibility of proposed federal funding cuts last Friday, at Blackstone River Theatre. Also on stage are Randall Rosenbaum of the Rhode Island Council on the Arts and Elizabeth Francis of the R.I. Council for the Humanities. (Breeze photos by Robert Emerson)
Discussion centers on proposed funding cuts, economic return that art brings into communities

CUMBERLAND – The arts matter.

That’s what high school students from Cumberland and Newport, as well as leaders in Rhode Island’s arts community, gathered to say, in various ways, last Friday at a cultural conversation with U.S. Rep. David Cicilline at Blackstone River Theatre in Cumberland.

Opposition was fierce to a proposal from the Trump administration to cut or eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts – funding that trickles down to support state and local arts programs – as part of an effort to reduce the national deficit.

“We don’t want to be in the generation that grows up where it doesn’t exist,” said Cumberland High School student Alexandria Evers, 17, who stood tall at the microphone, speaking about the importance of funding art and the role it plays in society.

Art is the only place one high school student says she feels free.

“It’s the place where I feel like I’m growing … that’s where I flourish, that’s where I can dance, that’s where I can feel fluent,” said Violet Anderson, a student at the MET School’s East Bay location in Newport.

Anderson, 17, said art is the most “rounded-out” form of communication there is, and said “defunding the arts is another way to suppress freedom of communication and freedom of speech.”

As noted by many at the panel discussion, the National Endowment for the Arts has been around for more than 50 years.

Evers, who said the NEA is already funded in a minuscule way, said, “It’s such a small amount, and the amount that it brings back is huge, so it would be a tremendous economic loss first off and foremost.”

The potential defunding of the NEA is a move that students said affected them emotionally, but it’s also one that would cause severe loss of revenue for the state and its arts community, panelists agreed.

Randall Rosenbaum, executive director of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, and Elizabeth Francis, executive director at the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, joined Cicilline to talk about not only the NEA’s local significance in terms of providing programs and grants, but also the way these initiatives provide economic return.

When there are shows or performances in Providence, for example, restaurants are bustling with patrons, and it’s nearly impossible to get a seat.

“It’s not just the loss of a performance at Trinity (Repertory Company), but it’s the impact it has on the artists, the set designers … it’s the restaurants and surrounding businesses … which can be really devastating to communities,” Cicilline said, speaking of the potential NEA cuts.

He told those in attendance last Friday that he does not anticipate the NEA will be defunded, or the budget will be accepted in full by Congress, but added, “I do think there will be an effort by my colleagues to make substantial reductions in some important investments that we make, including the arts and humanities.”

Cicilline said on average, every $1 invested in arts produces $50 in economic return. In the 1st Congressional District, he said, nearly 7,000 people are employed through arts-related businesses.

Rosenbaum pointed out before the discussion began that the NEA’s funding represents .004 percent of the national budget. That’s about 40 cents per person, per year, he said – the cost of a postage stamp.

He told The Breeze he’s gathering a “sense of confusion” from folks in the arts industry, but said there’s a great deal of support from Rhode Island delegates to keep the programs going.

In fiscal year 2016, RISCA received $744,5000 in “partnership agreement funds” from the NEA, and through NEA and state funds, RISCA was able to award 300 grants totaling $1,527,600 in fiscal year 2015, not counting non-grant services to community groups, schools, artists and art organizations.

In 2016, the NEA awarded 14 direct grants, amounting to $465,000, to Rhode Island.

Katie Dubois, a CHS student in the National Art Honor Society, an organization established at the school this year, said the administration “should take time and step out from behind their desks and behind their little social media bubble and budgets … to take time and understand the impact, or the ripple effect” defunding or cutting the NEA budget would have.

Art isn’t just about skill, Dubois said, it forms a community.

“You don’t need to know how to throw a football to be part of the team,” she said.

CHS senior Emily Fortier said, “What I find important about the arts is not only does it express emotion and creativity, but also it inspires and tells stories and really brings together a community.”

Rosenbaum said the goal of RISCA, as a state agency, is to understand what’s happening in Washington, D.C., and know what RISCA can do to help local delegates’ efforts to ensure these cuts don’t happen.

As suggested by Cumberland’s planning director, Jonathan Stevens, who attended Friday’s session, one message Cicilline could share with his colleagues in Washington is that in 2014, Rhode Island voted in favor of the cultural economy bond that brought in $35 million to the state for performing arts centers, including Blackstone River Theatre, and downtown areas from Westerly to Woonsocket and various towns and cities.

It was a move, he said, the strong majority of Rhode Island residents supported, that benefited “Main Street, Rhode Island.”

After the discussion, Cicilline said, “Budgets are a reflection of our priorities and really, a reflection of our values, and so I want to be sure that we have a budget that reflects our values as Rhode Islanders and invests in education, job training, health care, the arts, things that I know make our country and our community strong.

“We need art now more than ever,” he said.

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Cumberland High School senior Alexandria Evers addresses the gathering at Blackstone River Theatre in Cumberland last Friday. The cultural conversation was attended by students from CHS and the MET School in Newport, as well as local and state arts and humanities leaders.