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  • Meera Chakravarthy

The NEA Gave Me Life. Please, Don’t Take it Away.

Updated: May 23, 2019

“Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a Nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.” –Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965

When I was four, my family gave me a toy piano keyboard. It had about 20 keys in all the colors of the rainbow, with every feature a toddler could wish for, including the option to create farm animal sounds. To this day, I still remember excitedly running up to my parents with the keyboard in hand, sitting them down in the living room, and making them listen to my premiere piece titled “Ding Dong Poli.” With lyrics and music by Meera Chakravarthy, this short, less than 30 second piece took the audience up and down a C# major scale with the words “Ding Dong Poli’s on her way today” outlining the story of a girl who had come to save the world today… with her music.

This essay is not meant to detail in depth the economic value of the arts, nor will it provide a series of facts and figures on why the arts sector should be saved at the federal level. Great organizations and advocacy groups are already on top of this, such as Americans for the Arts. This essay details my story of how the arts, and specifically the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), have shaped the American I am today, and the American I will continue to become.

Growing up in an Indian family in the suburbs of Kansas City, I might easily have been expected to spend my day to day studying for the SAT or dreaming about the Ivy League school I would someday attend. On the contrary, as a young girl in Overland Park, Kansas, I found a life for myself in marching band. The place I felt most energized, supported, and at peace with myself was on the football field with a flute parallel to the ground at all times, eyes on the conductor’s hand, and feet moving smoothly across the turf — heel, ball, toe — step! Marching band, an arts program within my public school system, taught me more about what I wanted from life than any other program, institution, person, or experience. While I didn’t take the route many high school music lovers did by becoming an arts educator or professional classical

musician, the arts left a massive impression on me that I yearned to explore beyond classrooms, halls, and studio walls…

We mustn’t stop federal support of arts education.

Over the past 50 years, the National Endowment for the Arts has supported more than $238.6 million dollars in arts education. However, the support that the NEA has given to arts education runs deeper than just grants. The NEA helps arts education grow as a field. Throughout the years, the NEA has published reports such as The Arts and Achievement in At Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies to show how arts education has led to stronger civic engagement, creativity, and better thinkers. In addition to research on the impact of arts education, the NEA’s professional development grants help the actual arts educators in our country become stronger teachers. We want arts to be available to not only the student who is in a magnet music school in Manhattan, but also to the aspiring painter in rural Iowa. From “collective impact grants” that help local K-12 schools partner with city agencies and local businesses, to strategic education planning, the NEA helps arts remain available and accessible to each student in our democracy and is present in every congressional district in the United States. (cite)

When I entered college at UNC Chapel Hill, I chose to major in both music and economics. Anyone who has studied music seriously (or any art for that matter) understands the deep-set competition that inevitably comes with this field. Did you get first chair orchestra? At what tempo are you playing the Bach in C major? I quickly learned that I had not had a similar artistic upbringing to many of my peers. I hadn’t trained from the age of 5 with private tutors or orchestra camps, rather, as I mentioned, I grew up in suburban Kansas, picked up flute in my 5th grade elementary school, and took lessons at the music store in the strip mall down the street. In college, I was an average flautist whose main music exposure was through my public school system. In my youth, I had attended school plays, musicals, and band shows; not ballets, operas and orchestras. Because I didn’t draw my inspiration from “high art forms” grounded in the private sector, my college music interests and experiences were more eclectic than what I would have gotten in a traditional conservatory setting. I engaged in deep-set cross-cultural dialogue, community music ensembles, and I studied the role and the evaluation of public access to the arts in making a community a more vibrant space. If my exposure to the arts had been solely through “high-culture”, highly competitive arts, I likely would not still be in arts. Rather, my experiences as a music major in a public American institution beautifully shaped me, not only as a flautist, but as a well-rounded and self-aware student of the arts.

“Where there’s liberty, art succeeds.” -Ronald Reagan, 1985

Public support of the arts is vital to the well-being of all Americans.

Federal funding is meant to democratize our country, not stratify and divide it. If we leave arts funding to the private sector we encourage a form of competition that could ultimately restrict funds from reaching the very rural and developing areas of our country that we want to reach in order to “make America great again.” For example, without funding supported by taxes at every level, from federal taxes to a local special-use sales tax passed by its very own residents, McPherson, Kansas could never have restored its opera house, today a thriving part of the local economy and the regional arts ecosystem. On their website, the opera house leadership states, “Funding came from individual donors, foundations, government and private grants, as well as from State and Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credits — government done right.” (cite)

In areas of the economy where our federal administration is boasting that it will restore jobs, such as the coal mining industry, federal arts funding has distinctly improved the community and quality of life with accessible art. As the West Virginia Division of Culture and History states, ”Through grants and technical services funded by the West Virginia Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts, we collaborate with artists, schools and nonprofit organizations to help provide cultural activities that improve the quality of life in West Virginia, help provide a complete education to our children and boost economic development in communities throughout the state”. (cite)

If left entirely to the private sector, it is inevitable that donors and philanthropists will have more than just a say in who and what gets funded. By letting only the private sector control arts funding, we allow that sector to dictate the standards of artistic excellence and merit to our American people, rather than the arts organizations themselves. Using federal funds for the advancement of the arts is really no different from the rationale for federal commitment to support basic research in other disciplines such as the sciences. When we want to fund specific treatments of a disease so rare with little commercial interest, we fund it with tax dollars because we as citizens believe that a solution is more important than mere commercial viability. Federal arts funding works very similarly — if it didn’t, American artistic expression would be less the vision of a democracy and more a menu of what will yield short-term profit for a commercial business.

Every 3 years, my family would travel back to our hometown of Bangalore, India. The summer of my sophomore year in college, I committed to taking traditional Bansuri (indian bamboo flute) lessons and interviewing local musicians and relatives. With each new lesson, I learned not just to understand, but to play the very Carnatic music I grew up listening to in the car. Through informal interviews, I learned of the hidden talents many of my family members possessed, and I felt their joy consume them as they excitedly ran into their closets to pull out old cassette tapes of their music — something they hadn’t been asked about for around 40 years. When I returned to my university after my trip, I devoted an entire independent study to Indian music theory and practice, even composing a flute recital around Indian music in order to expose my friends and family to the art of fusion music. My experiences with the folk and traditional art of my own culture were part of the process of self-discovery for me as a musician, and as an American. Studying the music of India helped me understand the unique nuances I bring, whether that is to the classroom, a group of friends, or even a business meeting.

Engaging in Folk and Traditional Arts helps us understand our America.

While America is comprised of almost innumerable cultures, languages, religions, orientations, and more, still, out of many, we are one. Understanding each other’s individual stories allows us to blend these into a communal narrative; recognizing and valuing our diversity can actually help us form community. The NEA acknowledges this by supporting folklife arts. From funding basket weaving apprenticeship programs to maritime construction, the NEA understands the value of passing down disciplined cultural practices to help America continuously understand itself, and its people. The NEA has funded diverse traditions that have led to programs such as digital storytelling and unique research fieldwork, ultimately enabling state arts agencies and local nonprofits to better engage with their underserved communities. As humans, we will continually be singing mariachi music, doing Cambodian dances, and painting Afghanistan artwork in order to express ourselves. The NEA’s support of this work, and the understanding that it brings, helps unify us as a nation. (cite)

As I struggled to make meaning of a competitive music world, I found myself grounded in the arts for the first time when I ventured out of my college town into Durham, North Carolina. It was 2013 — the night my friend Ledah took me to see her violin professor play in a small, funky venue off of Main Street. We ate at a pub and were lost for 20 minutes before finding the venue: a square hut-like building with green and blue smoke spiraling upward. I remember needing to finish an economics assignment that night, but thinking “Who in the world can think about the money market when we can sit in this space and listen to this music?” I was transfixed. That night in Durham, I finally understood how my majors, music and economics, actually intersected in the real world. At last I was truly communicating with the community in my new home of North Carolina. I actually felt the space around me falling into place. I knew this feeling — this macro view of the role of the arts in a community — was what I wanted to share with the world.

In 1965 when the NEA was created, Lyndon B. Johnson said “It is in the neighborhoods of each community that a nation’s art is born. In countless American towns there live thousands of obscure and unknown talents. What this bill really does is to bring active support to this great national asset, to make fresher the winds of art in this great land of ours.” (cite)

The NEA sets national standards for arts communities across America.

The NEA has dedicated time to foster partnerships with, and among, state and regional arts organizations in every state. These partnership agreements help create a shared set of priorities to ensure that each individual in our nation benefits from engaging in the arts. It matches state government funds, while regional organizations are matched by private support. The NEA requires that states must allocate a portion of their funding to strengthen arts education and serve underserved populations. Without being the “overbearing parent”, the NEA sets guidelines so that states all across America have a model to provide the best artistic support to every citizen in our nation. If this model did not exist, communities all over America, especially rural communities, would almost certainly not have the support system they need to create a vibrant arts environment in their town. (cite)

As a senior in college, I had finally found the blend of academia and the arts. After studying the impact of the arts in my nearby community of Durham, I yearned to find a way to study this more systematically and on many more levels. When I told my advisor, Emil Kang, this, he immediately introduced me to a concept called “creative placemaking,” a term coined by the NEA in 2010 that represented the policy of putting arts and culture in the center of urban planning. That year, I both interned at arts organizations that practiced creative placemaking and wrote a senior thesis on measuring the impact of creative placemaking through social media data. You see, the funny thing about “creative placemaking” is that it’s just putting a new name on a practice that has existed for centuries. As human beings, we yearn to put arts and culture in the center of our lives in order to thrive. Finally putting a name to this concept allows centralization of both resources and funding to help us cultivate the best places for us to dwell.

The NEA creates life in communities. Please, don’t take that away.

In the 2000s there was a shift in the NEA. The new chairman led the NEA to become closer to Lyndon B. Johnson’s vision: an agency focused on supporting the arts through research and community development grants. Up until the late 2000s, the NEA had little or nothing to do with revitalization projects. Moreover, the NEA was recovering from a reduction in arts funding due to the “NEA Four” artist scandal, when four artists were taken to court in the 1990’s because their projects were deemed by some to be too controversial to be funded by taxpayer money. Although the artists’ projects were ultimately funded, Congress decided it was best to simply stop funding all individual-artist projects, changing the nature of NEA funding. The nonprofit arts sector was also losing ground as federal and state funding waned, so rather than funding specific artists, the NEA found a new way to fund the arts. Appointed chairman of the NEA in 2009, Rocco Landesman soon addressed the country’s changing urban trends. He noted that areas across America were adopting the “creative city” model as they revitalized their old industrial and manufacturing centers. Landesman saw this as an opportunity to make the arts a part of the revitalization process. Chairman Landesman began work on a new form of arts funding — community-building projects through the perspective of the arts. These grants were designed to minimize gentrification even as they helped revitalize spaces, especially in rural towns across America, hence, “creative placemaking.” Since 2009, the NEA has created an entire division to champion creative placemaking projects and fund creative placemaking through Our Town Grants. These grants have funded artist communities all over the US; surprisingly, perhaps, 60% of those artist communities are found in rural areas. (cite)

It’s true that you never understand something fully until you experience it. The day I attended my first NEA public meeting, my perspective on the arts was altered forever. From meeting members of the NEA to listening to accounts of the work they did, such as helping veterans through music therapy, I understood a layer of the arts ecosystem that touched and guided all of us. Finally, here was an agency that had the same passion for research, education, and awareness of the arts that I did at a level that I wanted. In those few short hours, I saw how this agency affected my entire life: from 4 year old Meera in suburban Kansas to 23 year old cosmopolitan Meera in Washington, DC.

Today, I find myself in Washington, DC as a management consultant for a great technology firm. My passion for studying the macro impact of the arts through evaluation methods and data analytics has led me to get more training and understanding in the corporate world to bring back to the arts field in the near future. Though I do not work directly in the arts, I breathe it every single day. Whether that is composing Indian fusion music, or blogging about arts and technology, I live the arts ecosystem on all of its levels. And I know that without this top layer — the National Endowment for the Arts of the United States of America, the ecosystem cannot long survive.

You see, the NEA has given me hope, and in turn happiness.

When I did not want to be a solo musician or a teacher in the arts, the NEA helped me find a home in the arts nonetheless. And to this day it continues to shape and build that home through its numerous projects.

The NEA itself is never going to be a cultural trendsetter, nor should it be. It’s not going to singlehandedly create the next Broadway star. It is an institution founded to support and promote the development of the arts across our nation. Its existence is vital as a thought leader, a research institution, and a national nonpartisan supporter of the arts. We may need to rebrand the NEA to better fit its research role, modernize it to fund more technology-oriented and popular work, or create a more robust grant allocation and evaluation process. However, none of those changes requires the NEA’s destruction.

“I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.”- John F. Kennedy, 1962

When our world is in violent disarray, and lives are at stake every day, you may ask, why care about the arts? Isn’t it a luxury? Well…I ask you, is happiness a luxury? Is love a luxury? Is understanding the world a luxury? No, these qualities, the very qualities that drive the arts, are all part of our human nature. Surely, it is the role of our government to protect what is human.

Our government, when it is a true manifestation of our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, is in the business of guaranteeing us three main rights: life, liberty… and the pursuit of happiness. How, then, can our government help us pursue happiness if our government does not actively pursue and support the arts?

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