Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Artless Cuts: Some arts groups fret, others take it in stride, as loss of federal funding looms

There’s an old adage that says that money makes the world go ‘round.

The arts are no exception, which is why some local groups are increasingly concerned that the Trump administration and Congress will ax an important source of their funds—the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Susquehanna Folk Music Society is one organization that would feel a significant impact if the NEA were eliminated.

“It will reduce the scope of what we are able to do,” said Executive Director Jess Hayden, who said that NEA grants account for about 10 percent of the group’s operating budget ($125,000 over 11 years).

The society also would lose its connection with NEA staff, which often offers ideas and expertise about folk traditions and artists, she said.

Over the past 20 years, NEA has awarded $17.8 million in grants to Harrisburg-area arts programs, averaging $890,000 per year. Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (PCA) received the bulk of that funding, $16.1 million, averaging $805,000 per year.

PCA gets about 10 percent of its annual budget from NEA and the remainder from state appropriations. PCA then re-grants across Pennsylvania to schools, smaller arts councils, churches, individual artists, senior centers and statewide programs.

PCA is deeply involved with central Pennsylvania’s cultural scene, helping to support the work of such organizations as Central PA Youth Ballet, Susquehanna Art Museum, Whitaker Center, Harrisburg Symphony, Open Stage, Rose Lehrman Art Center, Central PA Friends of Jazz, Gamut Theatre, Theatre Harrisburg, Art Association of Harrisburg, Perry County Council of the Arts and Jump Street.

The Susquehanna Folk Music Society also receives grants from PCA, which, together with grants from the Cultural Exchange Fund and private foundations, allows world-class musicians and other folk performers to visit central PA.

“This allows us to bring authentic artists we couldn’t otherwise afford to broader community bases via public events and make ticket prices affordable,” Hayden said.

Jump Street receives 11.5 percent of its funding from PCA, which means that cuts in federal funding could substantially impact the Harrisburg-based arts group.

“It would put a huge hole in our budget,” said Executive Director Melissa Snyder. “We will continue to educate and advocate. We’ll need to find sponsors and foundation grants to supplement.”

School arts programs also could be affected, as they often rely on PCA money. Less funding from the NEA could trickle down to fewer schools receiving grants.

“Special projects centered on education are large, one-time grants that move the needle forward with arts programming,” said Chad Barger, executive director of the Cultural Enrichment Fund. “This is where I see the biggest risk to the arts, should public funding be eliminated.”

And then there’s what Snyder called the “trickle-down educational effect.”

“Students learn geography by building kites,” she said. “Arts careers, like fashion designer or architect, are revealed as arts career paths.”

And it’s not just grants that arts groups are worried about. Proposed federal tax changes could further impact their bottom lines.

Harrisburg Symphony Association’s Executive Director Jeff Woodruff is concerned that tax reform may limit or cap the deductibility of charitable contributions.

“All 501(c)3 charities … receive substantial indirect support [from] that deduction,” he said. “Just how that plays out in Congress as they negotiate tax reform is of concern to the symphony and all charities, especially the larger ones soliciting big-time donors.”

Will Supplement

Some in the arts community expressed less worry, putting the possible loss of federal funding into the broader picture of what they must do every day to survive.

“Generally speaking, only a small fraction of most local nonprofit arts’ operating budgets stem from federal sources, about 9 percent,” said Bill Lehr, who has served on the board of numerous arts organizations.

National statistics show that arts groups receive about 60 percent of revenue from operations and ticket sales, with about 30 percent from contributions, according to Lehr.

“The government piece is important, but not a prime piece, not in terms of the larger, overall budget picture,” he said.

Barger, of the Cultural Enrichment Fund, added that arts organizations are accustomed to the uncertainty of public money.

“This churn happens with any change in administration,” he said “Every year, arts funding is on the table with school funding because arts are considered non-essential. Those who work with government agencies are used to uncertainty.”

Groups that lose federal money will “just supplement with other sources,” Barger said.

Alternative funding streams typically include ticket sales, corporate and private sponsors, nonprofit groups, partnerships, volunteer time and state and local governments. Recently, crowd-funding has gained in popularity.

Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed creating a special fund for arts grants financed by selling bonds, said Jenny Hershour, executive director of Citizens for the Arts in Pennsylvania.

Potentially, that approach could increase the amount of state aid available for the arts. However, Hershour expressed concern that this plan removes the budget’s line item as an annual operating expense, placing it into a special fund for which fundraising will be required every year.

“When a line item is removed, it’s hard to get it added back,” she said. “If a new governor is elected, that represents another risk.”

In the meantime, Hershour and others are turning to political activism to get the ear of legislators. Last month, Americans for the Arts held an “Arts Advocacy Day” to show support for such things as arts education policy, the charitable tax deduction and funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

“We [went] to Washington to share our concerns with congressional offices,” Hershour said.

She also encourages anyone concerned about arts funding to join her in Harrisburg. On April 25, her group, Citizens for the Arts in Pennsylvania, will hold its own “Arts Advocacy Day” at the PA state Capitol.

To learn more about Citizens for the Arts in Pennsylvania, including their plan for “PA Arts Advocacy Day,” visit

Author: Gina Napoli

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