Baltimore-based Wide Angle Youth Media receives only about 2 percent of its budget from the federal government, but that doesn't mean officials there were alarmed any less by the news that President Donald Trump is looking to slash federal arts programs.
The loss of federal funding could be just the start of a downhill slide, officials at Wide Angle and many other local arts organizations fear.
"If you start pulling out the national piece, then the state piece starts to fall apart," said Susan Malone, executive director of the group, which provides arts education for Baltimore youth. "There's just not enough resources there, if you start to dismantle the funding pyramid we have put together."
And it's not only the actual loss of dollars that organizations fear. For many groups, federal funding — through the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, all of which would be eliminated under the president's budget proposal — serves as a seal of approval, a signal to other potential donors that the group is legitimate and the project is viable.
"That money provides the validation you need as an organization," said Malone. "It says that you are an organization of value."
Agreed Michael Ross, managing director for Center Stage, "the NEA is saying, 'We are supporting this great project,' and then we can use that to leverage other dollars to also support that kind of work."
Trump's budget proposal, which included a $54 billion increase in defense spending, is preliminary and must be approved by Congress. Arts programs have been a constant target of conservative legislators; President Ronald Reagan once proposed eliminating the NEA but was talked out of it by, among others, his friend Charlton Heston.
The total funding for the NEA, NEH and IMLS in the current budget is $526 million. Trump's proposal also included eliminating the Corp. for Public Broadcasting and its $445 million budget. Addressing that proposed cut, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said on MSNBC Thursday morning, "Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs? The answer was no. We can ask them to pay for defense, and we will, but we can't ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting."
In 2016, groups in Maryland received 19 grants from the NEA, worth a total of $520,000. That same year, 11 grants were awarded to Maryland groups and individuals by the NEH, worth over $1.46 million. The IMLS sent almost $2.9 million to the state.
Arts organizations are urging supporters to contact their legislators, post on social media and otherwise raise their voices against the proposed budget cuts.
"We all just need to be incredibly vocal and not just sit back and be paralyzed by what could be devastating," Wide Angle's Malone said. "There's too much on the table right now for us to be quiet."
At the Baltimore Museum of Art, recent NEH grants have included $750,000 to support conservation, while the NEA has provided $40,000 to support the recent "Matisse/Diebenkorn" exhibit and $25,000 for the just-opened "Off the Shelf: Modern & Contemporary Artists' Books" exhibit. The NEA also approved a $2 million indemnity program for "Matisse/Diebenkorn."
This year, Highlandtown's Creative Alliance received $15,000, part of its operating budget of *$2 million.
Since 2010, the Walters Art Museum has received $289,000 from the NEA, $1.7 million from the NEH and $1.2 million from the IMLS.
"We've really been able to capitalize on government support and leverage private philanthropy against it," said Julia Marciari-Alexander, executive director of the Walters, which has a current operating budget of $14.6 million. "Everything is dependent on the amazing grants that we get from these institutions."
At Maryland Humanities, which runs its own free educational programs and helps fund other nonprofit groups, Executive Director Phoebe Stein says slashing arts budgets is more than a matter of simple dollars and cents.
"We really do believe that government support for the humanities really makes our nation, when we have thoughtful and informed citizens who are committed to lifelong learning," said Stein, whose organization received around half its $1.55 million budget for the last fiscal year — $798,000 — from the NEH. "We believe a better-informed citizenry strengthens our economy as well. ... The value of the humanities far outweighs the cost, particularly in these divided times."
*Correction: An earlier version of this story gave incorrect amounts for the NEA's contribution to Center Stage and the Creative Alliance's operating budget. The Sun regrets the errors.