Last fall, President Donald Trump announced that he wanted the federal government to stop funding the National Endowment for the Arts. Reaction to that proposal was swift and bipartisan -- and in fact, in the budget that passed last month, there’s not a cut, but a tiny increase in arts funding.
The Norwich Arts Center is a striking red brick building downtown that began its life as a temperance hall more than a hundred years ago. Inside, its president, Charlie Chase is preparing for a month-long celebration of African American Art in this all-volunteer organization.
"We went out and found black artists that were noteworthy, and so we're bringing their art in," he said.
As well as new art, the month will celebrate the work of Ellis Ruley, a noted folk artist who lived in Norwich in the mid-20th century. A combination of film, theater and music will round out the event.
Rita Dawley is a local artist who also volunteers at the center. She’s organizing an exhibit by local schoolchildren. “They’re third graders and there must be about 25 works, done on black paper," she explained. "It's called the Ellis W. Ruley memorial art scholarship. I think it’s pretty neat and they’re going to be with every wonderful artist.”
All of this activity is partially funded by a one-time $4,000 grant, something that Chase said has fueled innovation at the center. “What it means is we’re able to take chances where we wouldn’t normally be able to take a chance," he said. "It allows us to be able to bring in higher talent, and the other thing it’s allowed us to do is to invest in publicity.”
The grant came through the state of Connecticut, but the dollars themselves are from the National Endowment for the Arts. This sort of small grant to community arts organizations is very typical of the work the NEA funds across the country.
Nationally, the NEA costs taxpayers just over $150 million a year, and the omnibus spending bill signed by the president last month included a $3 million increase in funding.
“This is progress," said Wendy Bury, the executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition. "We are very slowly moving ourselves as an industry, arts and culture, from nice to necessary.”
Bury said in some ways Trump’s proposal to zero out the NEA provided just the spotlight the organization needed to showcase its work. “To show that this industry is vital to our economy, our community vitality, so I think this was a great sign of support to say - oh no you don’t.”
And when next year’s federal budget proposal rolls around in just a few months, she hopes the NEA isn’t even on the chopping block.