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National Endowment for the Arts received $50 million stimulus funds for U.S. territories, operas and puppeteers

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Mike Riggs
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      Mike Riggs

      Mike Riggs is a staff writer at The Daily Caller. He has written and reported for Reason magazine and reason.com, GQ, the Awl, Decibel, Culture 11, the Philadelphia Bulletin, and the Washington City Paper, where he served as an arts and entertainment editor.

Thanks to a stimulus windfall, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has new funds to support an eclectic array of projects and organizations, from the American Samoa Council on Arts, Culture and Humanities to puppeteers across the country.

Last year Congress allocated $50 million of the $787 billion stimulus bill — designed to stave off a second Great Depression — to the National Endowment for the Arts. Congressional Republicans opposed, charging that the funds would essentially increase the NEA’s budget of $145 million by 34 percent.

The NEA divided its stimulus money in two: $19.8 million was given to regional and state arts agencies and $29.9 million was given directly to 636 nonprofit arts organizations. Unlike thousands of stimulus projects, The NEA assigned and dispensed of the funds within months of the stimulus bill’s passage.

So where did the money go?

The American Samoa Council on Arts, Culture and Humanities in Pago Pago and the Northern Marianas Commonwealth Council for Arts and Culture in Saipan received $25,000 each, and the Virgin Islands Council on the Arts in St. Thomas received $50,000.

It’s unlikely that when Democratic Rep. David Obey argued on the floor of the House, “We’re trying to treat people who work in the arts the same way as anybody else,” that he envisioned that money going overseas, even to U.S. territories.

While the stated goals of the stimulus were creating new jobs and saving existing ones — plus “[spurring] economic activity and invest in long-term economic growth” — most NEA applicants wrote for a more specific reason, requesting funds in order to “preserve jobs in the nonprofit arts sector threatened by declines in philanthropic and other support during the current economic downturn.”

The criteria for selecting less than 1,000 applicants from the 2,700 who applied, according to Douglas Sonntag, who led the NEA’s stimulus efforts, was geography, genre, and “cultural and ethnic diversity.”

It seems the NEA covered its bases: Backwater opera houses made big, including the Anchorage Opera Company, Boise’s Opera Idaho and Nebraska’s Opera Omaha (each of which received $50,000), and the Pensacola Opera in the Florida Panhandle ($25,000).

Puppeeters didn’t do badly, either: The Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta received $50,000, while the Sandglass Center for Puppetry and Theater Research in Vermont and the Spiral Q Puppet Theater in Philadelphia both received $25,000, all to preserve administrators and puppeteers.

The NEA also covered the ethnicity requirement: The Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance received $50,000 to preserve its director’s position, as did Chicago’s Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, which used the money to retain a collections manager and an exhibition coordinator. Radio Bilingue, Inc. received $25,000 to hold onto the host of the La Hora Mixteca Radio Program.

The NEA declined an interview request, but Bob Lynch, chief executive of Americans for the Arts, which conducts comprehensive arts-related research and lobbies for arts groups told The Daily Caller, “I think that choices were made at the NEA were on the side of getting the money out quickly and efficiently.”

“They are all equal, and should be treated as such,” he said of the varied recipients of NEA stimulus funds.

Lynch added that he initially suggested to the NEA that it request $1 billion in funding. “The government at all levels should be investing a lot more. A lot more.”