LEWISTON, Maine — Mainers with a passion for culture are concerned President Donald Trump might seek to eliminate funding for a number of small domestic agencies that include the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Whatever Trump proposes in his budget, probably within days, a generally sympathetic Congress will get the final say. In the meantime, though, proponents are worried.
“There’s nothing but uncertainty,” Hayden Anderson, executive director of the Maine Humanities Council, said Wednesday. “It’s a worrisome time for us.”
Julie Richard, executive director of the Maine Arts Commission, said her agency is trying to operate as usual while it waits to hear budget details. She said they don’t want to “respond to something that isn’t real yet.”
But, she said, if there are big cuts, “it would impact us greatly” because almost half of the agency’s money flows through the NEA.
Maine’s congressional delegation is likely to look kindly on those urging continued funding for any cultural programs that wind up on the chopping block.
Reacting to a New York Times story detailing the possible budget cuts, Maine’s U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Angus King recently signed a bipartisan letter with 22 colleagues calling for preservation of funding for the arts and humanities.
“Federal support for the arts and humanities is essential to our education system, economy and who we are as a nation,” the letter to Trump said. “We hope you will keep this in mind as you consider proposals that support these fundamental American institutions.”
Anderson said Rep. Chellie Pingree, a 1st District Democrat, has always been a champion of cultural funding and programs. She also has a seat on a key House appropriations subcommittee where the issue is likely to land.
In the past year, the NEA and NEH each got $148 million in federal funding, money they mostly used to provide grants for arts education and enrichment programs, often funneled through state-based agencies such as the one Anderson oversees.
He said the Maine Humanities Council normally gets about half of its funding from the federal government, though a couple of big competitive grants recently boosted the amount to about 70 percent last year.
So if the federal cash vanishes, Anderson said, that would be a “pretty substantial” hit for his agency.
Anderson said the Portland-based humanities agency, which was established decades ago as a nonprofit, works with partners across the state, including libraries and veterans centers.
He said, for example, that it has close ties to Lewiston’s library, which he described as “just a jewel,” to put on public programs with speakers and discussions.
Across Maine, Anderson said, librarians are showing “so much energy and creativity” in ensuring their institutions serve as “a central point for the town” that partnering with them to help is especially rewarding.
In addition to funding programs at the library, the NEH has provided money to Bates College to evaluate its collection of Marsden Hartley drawings.
The NEA has supplied grants in Lewiston for everything from artisan-based manufacturing at L/A Arts to support the Bates Dance Festival.
Anderson said the humanities council has a range of programs that could suffer if spending is slashed.
He said, for example, there’s been a book program in Portland for the past four years in which veterans come together to talk about a particular volume. “Together, they read literature and poetry and novels,” he said.
It’s a social event that’s not like sitting at a bar, Anderson said, and has some therapeutic value without being clinical. For instance, the first book the veterans read was Homer’s “Odyssey,” an ancient tale of a warrior trying to go home from war that participants said provided them with “new insight” into their own lives, he said.
The agency is doing similar programs with domestic violence groups, hospices and more, Anderson said.
It provides “new ways for talking about important stuff,” he said, and “makes us a better state.”
Anderson said he’s confident that if there’s an attempt to wipe out funding for the arts and humanities — as well as such cultural institutions as the Center for Public Broadcasting — people will rise up in their defense.
“Mainers are going to make it loud and clear” that these programs are important to them, he said.
Richard said the NEA grants and funds are crucial to many in Maine and beyond. Its research and leadership in the arts is critical, she said, and its money makes many endeavors possible.
Moreover, she said, its matching grants to arts organizations help them get leverage to receive more donations, an economic engine for the arts.
In their letter to Trump, the 24 senators pointed out that the NEA and NEH have been around since 1965 and have proven critically important to American culture.
They said the NEH “has funded groundbreaking scholarly research, preserved essential cultural and educational resources, cataloged more than 63 million pages of our nation’s historic newspapers and helped millions of young people grapple with the lessons of history.”
The arts agency helps promote the arts in every congressional district, they said, and offers grants to a range of organizations, particularly those in high-poverty communities.
“Both agencies extend their influence through states’ arts agencies and humanities councils, ensuring that programs reach even the smallest communities in remote, rural areas,” the senators said.
The senators also told Trump that the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates the arts and culture sector is a $704 billion industry that spurs tourism, prepares students for innovative thinking and employs more than 4 million people in creative endeavors nationally.
“Support for national arts and humanities initiatives define who we are as a nation and are pivotal in the advancement of our education and economy,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, who rounded up the letter-signers, said.